Is the US Forest Service our most inept federal agency?
One would assume that after more than 100 years of practice, a federal agency would be able to do its job correctly. However, that is not the case with the U.S. Forest Service. At least in New Mexico, it has been unable to consistently prevent its prescribed burns from escaping and becoming raging wildfires.
New Mexico is a nearly ideal location for wildfires. It is high and dry to begin with and is in the midst of a mega-drought, making it even drier than usual. Additionally, the Forest Service's fire suppression model for nearly a century has been to try to extinguish almost all fires instead of permitting frequent low-intensity burns — which were the historic norm. Even when the Forest Service has attempted to thin forests by mechanical means, it has often faced intense opposition from various environmental groups impairing its ability to do so.
As a result of all of these factors, forests are much denser than they used to be. A study has estimated that California forests are between 80% and 600% denser than they were 150 years ago. With denser forests, there is more fuel for a fire to consume, causing more severe fires. The original Smokey Bear is a survivor of a New Mexico fire.
As recently as 2000, Los Alamos, New Mexico was nearly burned down by a controlled burn that wasn't. The cerro grande fire, started by park employees as a prescribed burn at Bandelier National Monument, began in early May, which is the second windiest month in New Mexico. Before it was put out, it had consumed 47,000 acres and caused over one billion dollars in property damage.
One would have assumed that the Forest Service would have learned from the cerro grande fire that it's a bad idea to start a controlled burn in New Mexico in April, the windiest month of the year — but it didn't. Here's how the Forest Service started the largest wildfire in the state's history this year.
On April 4, 2022 at 11:34, controlled burns were begun at various points in an area of the Santa Fe National Forest called las dispensas. The fires grew out of control and, at 16:34, they were declared a wildfire. A request for contingency resources was then made. The fire would continue to grow and would become the Hermit's Peak fire.
In late January of 2022, the Forest Service started a pile burn fire in another section of the Santa Fe National Forest called Calf Canyon. Calf Canyon is to the west of las dispensas. The Forest Service thought it had fully extinguished the pile burn in January. However, on April 8, the pile burn showed a heat signature. It was discovered that the pile was still smoldering more than 2 months after it had supposedly been put out. A fire line was placed around the pile on April 9. On April 19, the pile re-ignited. On April 22, the Calf Canyon fire merged with the Hermit's Peak fire and eventually grew to 340,000 acres — 531 square miles. The Forest Service has admitted responsibility for the Calf Canyon fire.
The Forest Service has released a preliminary report of what went wrong with the las dispensas fire. Here are some of the findings:
1. The crew did not stop ignitions despite clear indications of high fire intensity and receptive fuels.
2. Insufficient back-up in the event something went wrong. When the call was made for contingency resources at 16:21, the support crew was at a training session in Taos, many hours away.
3. Underestimating the fuel available for a fire. The area was heavily forested, with 700 to 1,000 trees per acre consisting of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and white fir.
4. Insufficient local weather info. The crew was using NWS weather data from the Albuquerque station instead of data from a local remote area weather station (RAWS). During the day, relative humidity in the area sometimes fell below 12% — the cut-off limit for a prescribed burn.
5. Communications problems. Not all crew members were using the same comm equipment and were sometimes unable to communicate with other crew members
So what should New Mexico do about this disaster?
I think a case can be made that the Forest Service has been so incompetent for so many years with its stewardship of the national forests in New Mexico that it has forfeited its right to management. How about having our congressional delegation pressure Washington to have a test program giving the state and Indian tribes primary management control of the national forests in the state for the next ten years? Could the state and tribes possibly do a worse job than the Forest Service? As an example, it is my understanding that the Mescalero Apache have done a much better job of managing and maintaining their portion of the Lincoln National Forest than the Forest Service, which is next door.