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US review traces massive fire in New Mexico to planned burns

SANTA FE, NM — Two fires that converged to cause the largest wildfire in New Mexico history can both be traced back to planned burns instituted by U.S. forest managers as preventive measures, federal investigators announced Friday.

The findings shift more responsibility to the US Forest Service for initiating a natural disaster that destroyed at least 330 homes as flames raged through nearly 500 square miles (1,300 square kilometers) of pine forests and high-altitude meadows. The bushfire also displaced thousands of residents of rural villages with Hispanic colonial roots and high poverty rates while causing untold environmental damage.

About 3,000 firefighters and water-dropping planes and helicopters continue to fight the blaze as it approaches mountain resorts and Native American communities. Firefighting costs are already over $132 million, increasing at a rate of $5 million daily.

Fire and law enforcement officials offered a cautious but hopeful status report on Friday night, with fire behavior analyst Stewart Turner noting that from Saturday, they should keep an eye out for the so-called “red flag” — warm, dry weather with high winds.

“Weather is a major concern for us,” Turner acknowledged, saying that even an errant pinecone rolling down a slope and crossing a control line can spread flames. “Red flag warning is a big message for tomorrow.”

He said dry conditions are expected until Tuesday, but some moisture and thunder are possible from Wednesday.

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández described growing outrage as the fire sparked new evacuations of families and livestock. Fears of flames give way to concerns about erosion and mudslides in places where superheated fires penetrate the soil and roots.

“The devastation caused by these two fires is immeasurable and will be felt for generations,” said Leger Fernández, sponsor of a bill that would compensate residents and businesses killed by the fire.

State Forest Service has not yet released detailed planning documents for the originally planned burns that may indicate whether fire protocols have been followed.

Scientists and forest managers are rushing to develop new tools to predict the behavior of planned fires amid climate change and an ongoing drought in the American West. The intentionally lit fires, also known as prescription burns, are intended to limit the build-up of wood and undergrowth that, if left unattended, can fuel extremely hot and destructive wildfires.

The Biden administration announced a $50 billion plan in January to avert catastrophic wildfires that would more than double the use of planned fires and logging to reduce trees and other vegetation that act as tinder in the most at-risk areas. . Prescription burns are often used in natural areas that are too large to thin out by hand or machine.

The two fires east of Santa Fe converged in April to form the massive blaze at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

One of the fires was previously traced back to April 6, when a planned fire, set up by firefighters to clear small trees and undergrowth, got out of hand.

On Friday, researchers said they traced the source of the second fire to the remains of a planned winter fire that was dormant from several snowstorms only to flare up again last month.

Investigators said the prescribed “pile burn” was started in January at Gallinas Canyon in the Santa Fe National Forest outside Las Vegas, New Mexico, and was completed in the final days of that month. The Forest Service researchers found that fire was reported again in the same area on April 9 and escaped control 10 days later amid dry, hot, and windy conditions.

In a statement, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham called the study findings a “first step toward taking full responsibility for the federal government” for the New Mexico wildfire. She highlighted her pending request to President Joe Biden to instruct the Federal Emergency Management Administration to pay 100% of the costs associated with a wide range of recovery efforts.

Last week, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a 90-day hiatus and a review of protocols for scheduled fires that limit the build-up of flammable vegetation. He cited extreme fire hazards and adverse weather and did not specifically associate the study with the New Mexico fires.

“It will also ensure that the prescribed burning program across the country is anchored in the most contemporary science, policy, practice, and decision-making processes and that employees, partners, and communities receive the support they need to continue using this critical resource.” to deal with the wildfire crisis. the agency said in a statement Friday.

Moore said prescribed fires go according to plan in more than 99% of cases. Notable exceptions include the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that swept through national security facilities and residential areas in Los Alamos.

So-called pile burns often involve debris that has accumulated over months or even years. Forest managers cut down trees and collect garbage in mounds, preferring to burn forest fuels in the winter when planned burns are easier to manage.

In January, Santa Fe National Forest workers began burning a series of piles across an area of ​​1.5 square miles after informing the public of potential smoking hazards.

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

Albert L. Davis

My name is Albert, and I am a full time blogger by passion. I write about things that I am passionate about, and I have been lucky enough to find a career that fits me so well. I love being able to come home from work and spend my day doing what I want to do. I enjoy sharing tips and tricks to help others live a more balanced life, and I am grateful every day for the chance to share my knowledge with people all over the world.

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