The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forest Service says it failed to account for climate change in New Mexico blaze

A new report lays out the agency’s actions in a planned burn that exploded into New Mexico’s largest wildfire in history

A firefighter works to keep a burning log from rolling down a slope on May 23, as he and his co-workers work on hot spots from the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in the Carson National Forest west of Chacon, N.M. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal/AP)
3 min

When the U.S. Forest Service started an intentional fire in the Santa Fe National Forest in early April, the aim was to reduce the risk of a destructive blaze. But the agency relied on poor weather data and failed to understand how climate change had dried out the landscape, ultimately setting a fire that would explode into the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, the Forest Service said in a new report published on Tuesday.

“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered,” Forest Service chief Randy Moore said in an introduction to the 80-page report. “Fires are outpacing our models and … we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.”

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, which began as two blazes and combined to burn more than 341,000 acres and torch hundreds of homes as of Tuesday afternoon, has become the latest flash point in the debate over whether authorities should use prescribed burns — intentional fires meant to thin out flammable vegetation to lower the risk of more damaging blazes.

Wildfires need fuel to burn. A key way to get rid of that fuel is to set it ablaze, very carefully.

The review found the planning and analysis for the April 6 prescribed burn was done according to the Forest Service’s current standards and policies, and was carried out in an approved way. But the fire was being set “under much drier conditions than were recognized.”

“Persistent drought, limited overwinter precipitation, less than average snowpack” and fuel accumulation “all contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape,” the report said.

The report also found that numerous details about weather conditions were “overlooked or misrepresented,” and noted some automated weather stations nearby weren’t functioning. Those setting the fire also “did not cease ignitions or suppress the prescribed fire after clear indications of high fire intensity and receptive fuels.”

On May 20, Moore halted all prescribed burns on National Forest lands for 90 days as a safety precaution due to ongoing extreme weather. But he and others insist that such intentional burning is necessary to avoid disastrous wildfires, and that the vast majority of them do not cause problems.

“Wildfires are threatening more communities than they ever have. Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely.”

Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director with Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, said authorities “can no longer manage fire according to the calendar date” and should incorporate climate data more thoroughly into their models. He also said firefighters need to intensify prescribed burns when weather conditions are favorable. He warned that halting prescribed burns for three months could have consequences later this summer.

“Areas that should have burned under controlled conditions will burn under extreme conditions,” he said.

One month in, New Mexico’s largest-ever fire fuels anger and despair

In New Mexico, many have been outraged that authorities set the fire that ultimately displaced thousands of people from their homes.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) said the report pointed out numerous errors by the Forest Service.

“Forest Service failures destroyed many rich and proud New Mexico communities,” she said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “The rains may cause a second flood disaster. As the report notes, the Forest Service put numerous homes, communities, lives, historic sites, and watersheds at risk.”

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter.