Climate

Forest Service didn't consider climate change when it accidentally caused historic New Mexico fire

Key Points
  • The U.S. Forest Service said it failed to account for the effects of climate change when it conducted a controlled burn in April that prompted the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history.
  • The agency depended on multiple miscalculations, poor weather data and underestimated how dry conditions were in the Southwest when crews ignited the prescribed fire.
  • The Calf Canyon/Hermits Creek blaze has burned more than 341,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.
Fire official Ralph Lucas points to a forest burned by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon near Holman, New Mexico, U.S., May 24, 2022. Picture taken May 24, 2022. 
Andrew Hay | Reuters

The U.S. Forest Service failed to account for the effects of climate change when it conducted a controlled burn in April that prompted the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history, the agency said in a report published on Tuesday.

The agency depended on multiple miscalculations, poor weather data and underestimated how dry conditions were in the Southwest when crews ignited a prescribed burn that led to the ongoing Calf Canyon/Hermits Creek fire, according to the agency's 80-page review.

The blaze, which has burned more than 341,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes, comes amid a prolonged drought and extreme temperatures in the region.

"The devastating impact of this fire to the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico demanded this level of review to ensure we understand how this tragic event unfolded," Forest Service chief Randy Moore said in a statement. "I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals."

Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes have become significant challenges for the Forest Service, which uses prescribed burns as a way to lower the risk of a destructive fire. Controlled burns have historically helped manage vegetation, minimize hazardous fuels and recycle nutrients back to the soil.

The report found that while the Forest Service followed its approved prescribed plan, the fire was set under much drier conditions than recognized. Persistent drought, limited overwinter precipitation, less than average snowpack and fuel accumulation all contributed to rising the risk of fire escape, according to the report.

The review also discovered that "numerous details regarding situational awareness of weather in the fire environment were overlooked or misrepresented" and that some nearby automated weather stations weren't available.

"Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered. We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires," Moore said. "Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground."

On May 20, Moore announced a 90-day pause of prescribed fire operations on national forest lands, providing the agency time to evaluate the prescribed fire program. The Forest Service said it conducts roughly 4,500 prescribed fires every year and that 99.84% of projects go as planned.

"Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them," Moore said. "Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely."

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