The U.S. Forest Service has taken responsibility for igniting a third wildfire in New Mexico in 2022, and a federal lawmaker says she will advocate for disaster relief similar to what Congress did after the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
On Monday, the Forest Service released a report showing the Cerro Pelado Fire was started by embers that remained dormant in a pile of ash left from a prescribed burn — just like one of the two wildfires which merged to become the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.
The report notes that a fire crew came upon the pile two days before the fire really kicked off, but only searched for heat using hand tools.
The Forest Service has infrared cameras and drones that allow them to determine whether there’s any heat left in a pile burn, so they’re not relying solely on seeing the smoke, said Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who represents New Mexico’s third congressional district.
“They didn’t use that, the same way they didn’t use it in (Hermits Peak)-Calf Canyon,” she said in a phone interview with Source New Mexico on Tuesday. “So this was preventable.”
The Cerro Pelado Fire erupted in late April last year during an extremely windy day, in Sandoval County within the Santa Fe National Forest. It ultimately destroyed 10 buildings, including four homes and burned more than 70 square miles.
“It is outrageous that the Forest Service would have walked away from a pile burn during the windiest months that we’ve seen and there were already fires ongoing,” Leger Fernández said.
Congress in late 2022 set aside $3.95 billion for survivors of Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon. Leger Fernández said Cerro Pelado was started under the same set of circumstances, so the Forest Service should take the same responsibility.
She said she will speak with other members of New Mexico’s delegation to Congress to bring the same kind of relief to the victims from the Cerro Pelado Fire.
One difference this time around, she said, is that Democrats were in control of the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2022, but now the House is controlled by Republicans.
Leger Fernández said she does not know if Republican leadership will be supportive of providing justice to those harmed, but she said she will make the case in the same way she did last year.
“This is the right thing to do. This is about justice. This is about acknowledging and taking responsibility for the errors that the Forest Service did,” she said. “We need to make the same argument, and seek the same kind of relief.”
Embers remained beneath ‘ash crust’
The Forest Service’s Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque released the 260-page report, which indicates there were two investigations into the Cerro Pelado Fire’s cause.
Both investigations note that Forest Service workers from the Jemez Ranger District in January and February 2022 burned numerous piles of debris left from logging and stewardship activities as part of the Pino West Prescribed Burn.
On the afternoon of April 22, 2022, a lookout spotted blue-gray smoke billowing from the area.
Just two days earlier, a fire management officer had ordered a captain and his crew to check the piles, and they found some inside the prescribed burn area which still retained heat, according to the report.
A wildland fire investigator from the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources conducted the first investigation in April 2022, but could not conclusively determine if the piles of ash left by the prescribed burn caused the fire.
Cerro Pelado fire a grim reprise, tearing through the Las Conchas burn scar
Special agents with the Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations division did the second investigation in June 2022, and concluded the wildfire was caused by debris burning.
The report states on June 8, 2022, 48 days after the wildfire was first spotted, one of the agents was walking around where it started and found “the most probable competent ignition source,” a large pit of ash “created after logging debris was pushed into a pile with the use of equipment and burned.”
“High wind event exposed embers from hold over fire within slash pile/s,” the special agents wrote. “Windblown embers ignited receptive fuels down wind and upslope.”
An expert and former wildland firefighter, Tom Ribe, wrote a book on the Cerro Grande Fire, which began as a prescribed burn that escaped and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos.
He told Source New Mexico the problem with large piles like the one found to be the source of the Cerro Pelado Fire is when you use large equipment like a bulldozer to make the pile, you end up including a lot of dirt, and the burning material can burrow into the dirt.
“It’s like roots in the ground, it can burn for a long time when it’s covered with dirt like that,” he said. “That’s, I think, probably what happened there.”
Ribe said he helped with pile burns on federal and tribal land, and those piles were smaller and amassed by hand. Such a practice, he said, reduces the risk of long-smoldering embers. It is also better for the landscape, he said, because smaller piles don’t burn as hot or as long and then char the land underneath them.
In fact, the Forest Service report notes that industrial debris burning like the kind done by logging operations can create a crust of ash which holds “residual heat for months.”
“Often, by the time these larger industrial burn piles are exposed and become active again, forest debris such as leaves and needles have covered any attempts at control lines around the piles, allowing the fire a path of escape by direct burning or windblown ember,” the report states.
“There are numerous documented instances where these fires hav(e) escaped the following spring after being originally burned the preceding fall. This may be due to a mixture of dirt and ash which insulates the hot embers within the debris that is piled by these activities.”
Patrick Lohmann contributed reporting to this story.