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Forest Service finds its planned burns sparked N.M.’s largest wildfire

The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fire began as two separate wildfires that combined to destroy hundreds of homes and displace thousands of people

Firefighter Ryan Le Baron watches the fire blaze near the Taos County line as firefighters converged on northern New Mexico to battle the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires on May 13. (Jim Weber/Santa Fe New Mexican/AP)
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Forest Service fire investigators on Friday placed the blame for the Calf Canyon fire — one of two wildfires that combined to become New Mexico’s largest blaze — on a planned burn set over the winter that continued to smolder for months.

In a statement, the Forest Service said that what began as a controlled burn in the Santa Fe National Forest in January, meant to clear away vegetation and prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future, turned into a “sleeper fire.” It overwintered beneath the ground, continuing to burn slowly until it re-emerged in early April.

Fueled by strong, gusty winds, the Calf Canyon fire escaped firefighters’ attempts to contain it. On April 22, it merged with the Hermits Peak fire, which also began as a prescribed burn set by the Forest Service that grew out of control. In the month since then, the combined blazes have destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of people. As of Friday morning, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire had burned more than 312,000 acres and was 47 percent contained.

“The Santa Fe National Forest is 100 percent focused on suppressing these fires with the support of the Type 1 incident management teams who are fully prepared to manage complex, all-risk situations,” SFNF Supervisor Debbie Cress said in a statement.

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After decades of embracing a policy of putting out fires as quickly as possible, federal and some state officials have come around to the idea of prescribed burns in recent years. The basic concept, backed by science and Indigenous groups’ long history of using intentional fire, is that modest controlled burns can clear flammable vegetation and preempt the kind of destructive megafires that have devastated the West. Experts have called for more fire on the land, and the Biden administration has announced plans to use intentional burns and brush thinning to reduce fire risk on 50 million acres that border vulnerable communities.

But extreme drought and record heat, worsened by climate change, have made it more difficult to use intentional fire as a preventive measure. Longer wildfire seasons have narrowed the window of time when firefighters can set controlled burns safely. Bureaucratic obstacles, combined with public fear that an intentionally set fire could escape, have also prevented some forest managers from using prescribed fires.

In New Mexico, that fear has become a reality this year. After the Hermits Peak fire escaped its containment lines, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a suspension of all planned fires on national forest lands while the agency reviews its practices.

The review “will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation,” Moore said in a statement.

Moore said that in 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned and are “essential tools” to protect communities. But he allowed that, in rare circumstances, they can and have escaped control and become wildfires.

Blazes such as the Calf Canyon fire that overwinter, continuing to smolder throughout recurring snowfall and cold weather, are even more unusual. Most people think of fires as burning trees or brush. But it is possible for fires to burn deep into the soil and linger, presenting land managers and firefighters with a complex challenge when these blazes erupt the following spring.

This year, weather and climate conditions primed New Mexico for a devastating fire season that started weeks earlier than normal.

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Winter snowpack where the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak blazes began was significantly below normal as extreme drought gripped the region through the winter and into the spring. Starting in April, high winds combined with the tinderbox conditions to fan unseasonably early fires. The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings for dangerous fire conditions almost daily because of the volatile mix of windy, dry and warm weather.

The state observed its second-driest and 11th-warmest April on record. The conditions seen this year fit into a long-term trend toward hotter and drier conditions in the region which scientists have connected to human-caused climate change. Rising temperatures are increasing wildfire risk by intensifying drought and, thus, more rapidly drying out vegetation and making it more flammable.

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A recent study showed the “megadrought” in the Southwest is the most extreme in 1,200 years.

Climate Central, a nonprofit science communications organization, analyzed the change in the number of “fire weather” days in the West between 1973 and 2020. It found a general rise, with New Mexico experiencing some of the greatest increases.

New Mexico will likely be at heightened risk for the spread of fires until the monsoon rains begin in late June or July. The forecast for the next several day is grim, with the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center declaring a “critical” fire danger. A red flag warning is in effect Saturday for much of New Mexico, which may well extend through the holiday weekend.

“A significant fire growing pattern will continue Sunday and Memorial Day as winds strengthen further with extreme dryness, well above normal temperatures, and poor overnight humidity recoveries,” the Weather Service in Albuquerque wrote.

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