Forest Service releases statement on prescribed burn that led to Hermits Peak Fire

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LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The U.S. Forest Service has released a statement on the prescribed burn in New Mexico that turned into the nation’s largest wildfire.

This is the first response from federal officials since the flames grew beyond control, destroying hundreds of homes in Mora and San Miguel counties.

Here is the full statement from the Forest Service:

“Our primary goal in engaging in both prescribed fires and wildfires is to ensure the safety of the communities involved. Our employees are part of these communities across the nation. We believe that our employees and the communities we serve deserve the very best tools and science supporting them as we continue to navigate toward reducing the risk of severe wildfires in the future.

Before ignitions ever take plan on the landscape, planning happens years before. Landscapes are analyzed for prescribed fire treatments and the effects on vegetation, hydrology, threatened and endangered species, and human social impacts. Standard operating procedures to authorize prescribed fires include developing and coordinating a burn plan, site preparation, public notifications, weather and forecast monitoring and validation before a decision is made to go ahead.

In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires. In 99.84% percent of the cases, prescribed fires go as planned.  The Forest Service conducts about a hundred prescribed fires each year in the Southwest and has only seen 2 escape containment since 2011 with the Hermits Peak Fire being the 3rd

Everyone who lives and works in these communities feels the impacts of these unfortunate outcomes. We are doing everything we can to suppress the Hermits Peak Fire and minimize further impacts. The Chief has initiated a review of the Hermits Peak Fire. Requests to implement prescribed fires on national forests in the Southwestern Region will be thoroughly reviewed by the Regional Forester. The review process takes into consideration fire danger levels, fire activity, resource availability, and expected weather patterns before a determination is made.

The Forest Service intends to complete an internal Declared Wildfire Review of the Las Dispensas prescribed fire by mid-June. The report will include a review of the conditions on the ground, the planning process and design, an assessment of the decisions leading up to the prescribed fire implementation and a summary of contributing factors. 

The Forest Service will identify and communicate the next steps when the report is finalized.”  

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire is 34% contained as of Thursday evening – and has now burned 303,000 acres.

Update: U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has announced a pause on prescribed fire operations on all national forest lands while his agency conducts a 90-day review of protocols, decision-making tools & practices.