Congresswoman asks federal watchdog for independent fire investigation

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The congresswoman who represents northern New Mexico has asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct an independent investigation into the causes of the Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire.

Thursday, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández sent a letter to the GAO requesting a review of the wildfire, which began as a recent prescribed burn that merged with a months-old, reignited pile burn – both started by the U.S. Forest Service. The congresswoman also wants the agency to review Forest Service protocols for such fires, which she said remain “an important part of healthy forest management.”

At more than 315,000 acres, the fire is the largest in state history. Burning for nearly two months, it has displaced tens of thousands of evacuees and burned hundreds of homes. The Forest Service has said it is reviewing its own actions in the fire, but Leger Fernández said an independent review is vital to avoid a conflict of interest. The Forest Service has refused to release current documents regarding the fire to KOB and other media outlets. In the letter, the Santa Fe congresswoman asked the watchdog agency to determine if the USFS “keeps appropriate records about its prescribed burn decision-making.”

Rep. Leger Fernández has already introduced the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act along with Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, which asks for federal reimbursement for damages caused by the Hermit’s Peak Fire. The Friday before Memorial Day, she learned along with the rest of her congressional district that the Forest Service acknowledged its role in starting the Calf Canyon fire, too.

“When I heard that news, I had the same kind of reaction that everybody else did— that I cannot describe here on TV,” she told KOB Thursday.

The congresswoman said the letter, sent to GAO comptroller general Gene Dodaro, was well-received by the agency and she expects an investigation to begin soon. Because of its broad nature in reviewing not just the Calf Canyon Hermit’s Peak Fire but also agency-wide protocols for prescribed burns, she said it could take a year to complete.

While not guaranteed by such an investigation, congressional hearings have in the past followed similar GAO examinations of federal government policies and practices.