2022 Top Stories #2: Wildfires burn across the state

Note: Every year, we count down the top ten stories of the year, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers. See our entire countdown of 2022 top stories, to date, here. The two largest fires in state history burned simultaneously this summer, charring hundreds of thousands of acres and displaced thousands of people. Even people whose properties were not directly impacted by […]

2022 Top Stories #2: Wildfires burn across the state

Note: Every year, we count down the top ten stories of the year, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers.

See our entire countdown of 2022 top stories, to date, here.

The two largest fires in state history burned simultaneously this summer, charring hundreds of thousands of acres and displaced thousands of people. Even people whose properties were not directly impacted by the fires were affected by the thick smoke.

An active monsoon season helped extinguish the fires, but they brought their own consequences. Each storm brings a new threat of debris flows and runoff, which can damage property as well as water sources.

As the fires burned, misinformation spread as well, scientists say.

Some people blamed climate change, claiming that fire is inevitable amid increasing aridification. Which is true, but is only part of the story.

Others denied a link to climate change and blamed it on a decrease in logging or clearing of fuels. 

Scientists say a combination of climate change and past forest management decisions has created a tinderbox. And forest management doesn’t just mean going in and cutting down trees. Fire plays a crucial role in many forest ecosystems but has been excluded from the landscape through past forest management policies. The lack of fire means more fuels have built up. There are two ways to decrease fuel loads—manually going in and removing them or using prescribed burns. A combination of manual thinning and prescribed burns is needed to create healthy forest conditions. Mechanical treatments such as manual thinning do not always address logs and fallen trees or the built up forest litter—such as leaves, pinecones and similar debris on the ground.

The latter has faced increased criticism after the U.S. Forest Service lit a prescribed burn that got out of control, leading to the Hermits Peak Fire. The fire then joined with the Calf Canyon Fire. Investigations found that the Calf Canyon Fire was also caused by the Forest Service. The agency had lit burn piles in January but the fires had not been fully extinguished and, when spring winds picked up months later, it sparked a wildfire.

Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists say computer modeling can help forest managers conduct prescribed burns in a safer manner to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Prescribed burns were temporarily paused following the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.

The joined Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire became the largest wildfire in recorded New Mexico history.

At one point, New Mexico State University’s John T. Harrington Forest Research Center—which is tasked with growing seedlings for reforestation efforts after wildfires—was forced to evacuate.

While crews battled the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico, the second largest fire in state history—the Black Fire—burned in the Gila National Forest. While the exact cause of the Black Fire is unknown, officials say it was started by humans.

These fires came after the McBride Fire near Ruidoso left two people dead. The McBride Fire was likely ignited by electric utility infrastructure. The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission has been gathering information from utilities about vegetation management practices.

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