Fire officer Ralph Lucas points to a forest burned by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon near Holman, New Mexico, USA, May 24, 2022. Photo taken May 24, 2022.
Andrew Hay | Reuters
The U.S. Forest Service failed to account for the effects of climate change when it carried out a controlled fire in April that caused the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the agency said in a report published on Tuesday.
The agency was dependent on multiple miscalculations, bad weather data and underestimated how dry conditions were in the Southwest when crews ignited a prescribed fire that led to the continuing fire of Calf Canyon / Hermits Creek, according to the agency’s 80 pages. .
The fire, which burned more than 341,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in New Mexico, comes amid prolonged drought and extreme temperatures in the West.
“The devastating impact of this fire on the communities and the existence of the victims in New Mexico required this level of assessment to ensure that we understand how this tragic event unfolded,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in a statement. “I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals.”
Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes have become major challenges for the Forest Service, which uses prescribed burns as a way to reduce the risk of a destructive fire. Controlled fires have historically helped control vegetation, minimize hazardous fuels, and recycle nutrients back to the soil.
The report found that while the Forest Service followed its approved prescribed fire plan, the fire was under much drier conditions than recognized. Persistent drought, limited winter precipitation, less than average snowfall and fuel accumulation all contributed to increasing the risk of fire escapes, according to the report.
The review also revealed that “many details regarding situational awareness of weather in the fire environment were overlooked or misrepresented,” and that some automated weather stations nearby were not available.
“Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground that we have never encountered. We know that these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires,” Moore said. “Fires are going beyond our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.”
On May 20, Moore announced a 90-day break from prescribed fire operations on National Forest lands, giving the agency time to evaluate the prescribed fire program. The Forest Service said it carries out about 4,500 prescribed fires each year and that 99.84% of the projects go as planned.
“Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our arsenal to fight them,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, the effects of climate change limit the windows where this tool can be used safely.”