The U.S. Forest Service admitted that the Cerro Pelado Fire which burned over 60 square miles in Sandoval County, New Mexico, last year was caused by the agency’s own prescribed burn. The Forest Service investigation found the wildfire in April of 2022 started from an “escaped” prescribed burn where piles were ignited earlier in February.
Investigators traced the wildfire to a prescribed burn of piles of forest debris commissioned by the Forest Service. The burn became a holdover fire, smoldering undetected under wet snow, with no signs of smoke or heat for months, said Southwestern Regional Forester Michiko Martin.
The Forest Service will conduct an internal declared wildfire review to learn how to conduct prescribed fires more safely and reduce the risk of them escaping, said Martin. He added that firefighters in the Southwestern Region are now using handheld thermal devices and drones to detect the presence of heat.
The Cerro Pelado fire crept within a few miles of the city of Los Alamos and its companion U.S. national security lab. As the fire approached, schools closed and evacuation bags were packed before the flames tapered off.
The agency’s report sparked criticism from New Mexico leaders, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who said on Twitter she is “outraged over the U.S. Forest Service’s negligence that caused this destruction.”
“While climate change and extreme drought continue to plague the Southwest, the Forest Service must abandon their business-as-usual approach to prescribed burns and forest management in our state,” it read.
New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) echoed these concerns, tweeting that the Forest Service needs to prioritize “rebuilding the public’s trust.”
“New Mexico suffered enormous loss during last year’s wildfire season,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is frustrating and deeply concerning to learn now that the Cerro Pelado Fire was also caused by an escaped prescribed fire.”
The Forest Service last spring halted all prescribed burn operations for 90 days while it conducted a review of procedures and policies. By the end of the moratorium, managers learned that they can’t rely on past success, and must continuously learn and adapt to changing conditions, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore recently told New Mexico lawmakers.
Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez (NM-02) questioned Moore in a House Agriculture For-estry Subcommittee hearing on confronting the wildfire crises. Vasquez had sent a letter to the Forest Service to demand an updated action plan for prescribed burns to ensure the safety of New Mexicans. After two months of no response, Vasquez pressed Moore in the hearing for an update on Forest Service methods.
“We are already seeing fires across our state, including the Las Tusas fire outside Las Vegas, a community that is still recovering from last year’s devastating fire,” said Vasquez.
Many of the New Mexicans displaced by fires have yet to receive any compensation they were promised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As of early spring, only 13 of the 140 eligible households had received FEMA housing. Moore said the Representative should direct his question to FEMA.
Vasquez responded, “I’m glad that you said that because this is where the disconnect comes from and this is where I believe the distrust from constituents in New Mexico comes from – there’s a disconnect here between federal agencies. If one federal agency causes a catastrophic fire that causes 400 people to lose their home and says now it’s FEMA’s problem, then people, rightfully so, are not going to have a trust in the government.”
Vasquez is committed to holding the federal government accountable for its delayed response to New Mexicans who are still recovering from last year’s fires. Vasquez concluded, “A problem caused by the federal government must be fixed by the federal government.”