4 Investigates: The prescribed burns that started the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire
ROCIADA, N.M. — Many people are demanding answers from the federal government on why a prescribed burn in the Santa Fe National Forest was given the green light in early April.
The Las Dispensas prescribed burn turned into the Hermits Peak wildfire on April 6 – the same day it was started by crews with the U.S. Forest Service.
The Hermits Peak Fire eventually merged with the nearby Calf Canyon Fire to create a massive inferno. Forest Service officials said the Calf Canyon Fire also started as a prescribed pile burn in January that somehow reignited months later.
Both prescribed burns were part of a larger project to protect and improve the Gallinas Watershed near Las Vegas, New Mexico. The two fires continue to consume more than 300,000 acres – now the largest fire in the state’s history
Toby Dolan is a retired state police officer who moved to the small village of Rociada more than 20 years ago. He moved out there for the serenity and the once beautiful view from home to Hermits Peak. But now, the fire has devoured his house, his mother’s house, and his grandmother’s house too.
“We had previously evacuated some mementos and valuables out of our house, so we put that stuff back when they had it 91% contained,” Dolan said. “So we made the quick trip to Texas and it burned down before we could even get back.”
He blames the Forest Service and he’s not alone.
“They are professionals, and I respect that very much, but obviously it was a risky thing to do given the dryness of this year,” said Tom Ribe, a fire scholar.
Ribe worked for the National Park Service for years doing prescribed burns in California and in New Mexico. He lived in New Mexico for most of his life and even wrote a book on the 2000 prescribed burn that turned into the Cerro Grande wildfire near Los Alamos.
“I can’t imagine that the place was, as we call, ‘in prescription,’ which means that the conditions were right to do this,” Ribe said.
KOB 4 requested a copy of the prescription burn plan for the Las Dispensas burn. It’s a plan that details prescription parameters, and conditions. It has to be done before striking that match. But what we got back was incomplete. Authorization pages and checklists are still under review.
The plan KOB 4 did get back had pages dated from 2018. It’s unclear if that version was ever revised over the years. It details numerous (12) planned burns within the Gallinas Watershed. It includes the Las Dispensas burn and the Calf Canyon pile burn.
“The first thing that jumped out at me was the plan was written back in 2018, apparently,” Ribe said. “It may have been revised since then but there’s no evidence of that that they wrote down.”
Drought conditions in New Mexico have changed over the years. Right now, the state is experiencing exceptional drought. That’s the case in San Miguel County, where the burn happened.
“It has been way more windy, and we know that, for this spring, in New Mexico as a whole,” said Scott Overpeck, warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Albuquerque.
Overpeck said the agency provided a spot forecast to the Forest Service for the burn on April 6. It showed the potential for high wind gusts and low relative humidity.
“Relative humidity or how dry it is, so really dry air, less than 15% really helps those fires be able to grow,” Overpeck said.
Here’s how the spot forecast compared to the guidelines set in the plan:
- The spot forecast called for cooler temps, but the potential for lower than 12% relative humidity. That percentage was used in the guidelines as a number that would create “high fire intensity.”
- The spot forecast detailed winds at 10-15 mph, with the potential of wind gusts up to 25 mph. Sustained wind of 25 mph was also listed under “high fire intensity” on the guidelines.
The National Weather Service provided the actual conditions for April 6. It showed an average wind speed of 18.4 mph and the high gust wind speed at 40 mph.
“Unfortunately, it’s the burn boss who’s really on the hot seat here, because he or she makes the decision to go or not go,” Ribe said.
The state government is calling for the feds to own up and pay for the destruction they’ve caused – something Dolan wants too.
“I spent a 20-plus year career in law enforcement trying to protect the people of this community and property and then to have a federal agency come in and be negligent and jeopardize that is beyond belief,” Dolan said.
But there’s no getting back what’s gone.
“From things my dad gave me, who I lost 11 years ago. A saddle of my great grandfathers. Some of my son’s army medals,” he said.
Now there is just a pile of rubble they can’t even afford to clean up.
“Over the course of 2 years, with inflation, we’ve now found out that we’re $100,000 under insured just on the house alone,” Dolan said.
Information on debris cleanup from the New Mexico Environment Department:
FEMA has approved full assistance with debris removal through the presidential disaster declaration to assist New Mexicans in San Miguel and Mora counties affected by the wildfires.
The New Mexico Environment Department is currently working closely with FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin outreach to New Mexicans whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the recent wildfires.
Guidance will be distributed by FEMA providing a flow chart to residents giving them two options:
- Option 1, residents will fill out a form “opting in” for state and federal EPA assessment of their property. Once assessed for household hazardous waste and asbestos by the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers will collect, safely remove, and properly dispose of the wildfire debris. All of this will have no out-of-pocket costs to property owners.
- Option 2, is a form “opting out” of state, federal, and Army Corps assistance. In doing so, homeowners take on the responsibility of disposing of the debris in accordance with state and federal environmental regulations.
More information, as well as the forms, will be available online later this week as federal, state and local officials coordinate the debris removal process.
As of May 28, FEMA has approved more than $2.3 million to help New Mexico residents recover from the wildfires and straight-line winds. 790 applicants have been approved for disaster assistance through FEMA’s Individual Housing (IA) Program.
FEMA does not duplicate benefits from insurance. Residents with homeowners’ or renters’ insurance should contact their insurance provider immediately and begin the claims process. FEMA requires information from your insurance which may include a declaration page, settlement or denial.
New Mexican residents with uninsured or underinsured losses should apply for FEMA Individual Assistance as soon as possible. FEMA assistance is not the same as insurance and can only provide the basic needs for a home to be safe, sanitary and livable. For more information on covered costs, click here.
Additionally, New Mexico residents who received a letter from FEMA saying that the application information provided is incomplete, or that you are ineligible for disaster assistance, have the right to appeal within 60 days of the date on the letter. An appeal letter may change FEMA’s decision. If your request was denied because of missing information, provide the necessary documentation may help you qualify for a grant. If you don’t agree with the amount of the grant, providing receipts or written quotes may allow you to receive a larger grant.
Home Repair Assistance:
Financial assistance to help with uninsured or underinsured home repairs to an owner-occupied primary residence. Types of repairs can include structural parts of a home (e.g., foundation, outside walls, roof) or windows, doors, floors, walls, ceilings and cabinetry. It may also include repair utility systems such as electrical, plumbing and gas systems or for disaster-caused damage to items not typically covered by insurance, such as wells, septic systems, access roads, etc. Assistance is limited to the basic needs to make the home safe, sanitary and livable.