May 27, 2022

USFS says January burn led to Calf Canyon Fire

Andy Lyon/USDA Forest Service

Fire approaches Highway 434 at Christmas Tree Canyon as firefighters work to keep the fire west of the road.

The U.S. Forest Service officially took responsibility for the Calf Canyon Fire on Friday in an announcement.

The Forest Service says a pile burn in January led to the blaze that later joined with the Hermits Peak Fire and became the largest wildfire in state history. 

The embers from the prescribed fire remained dormant until April when they reignited and spread quickly.

The announcement comes as the Forest Service has faced scrutiny for its decision to ignite a prescribed burn in early April that led to the Hermits Peak Fire.

Elected leaders were quick to demand accountability following the announcement.

“The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service – an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands – is unfathomable,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a press release. 

She said the Friday announcement is “a first step toward the federal government taking full responsibility for the largest wildfire in state history, which has destroyed hundreds of homes, displaced tens of thousands of New Mexicans, and cost the state and local governments millions of dollars.”

While she said she appreciates the Forest Service assuming responsibility, she called for the federal government to take a hard look at fire management practices and to make sure the practices account for the rapidly changing climate.

“New Mexico and the West must take every precaution to prevent fires of this magnitude from occurring, especially as precipitation levels continue to decrease and temperatures rise,” she said.

The Forest Service has implemented a 90-day pause on prescribed burns and will be paying 100 percent of the costs for fighting the fire, which to date exceeds $132 million.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a New Mexico Democrat representing Congressional District Three, called for Congress to pass the Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act to assist people who have been directly affected by the fire.

“The news today that the USFS also started the Calf Canyon fire adds to our sense of outrage.  The destruction these two fires caused is immeasurable and will be felt for generations. The federal government must take responsibility for the damage both fires caused,” she said in a press release. “I will continue to work to push my legislation, the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act, through Congress and ensure that everyone affected by both the Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon Fires is fully compensated. While we can never replace the beauty and history consumed by these fires, we must fully compensate individuals for their loss of property, income, grazing, and other costs associated with these fires.”