Prescribed Fire Escapes and Building Trust: Three New Mexico News Stories

It appears that Peter Williams and I are coasting along the stream of the Zeitgeist as I saw two stories this morning (from Nick Smith, thank you!) specifically on building trust around prescribed fire.

This is based on the Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico, a prescribed burn that got out of control and merged with the Calf Canyon Fire. Here’s one story.

Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez sent the Forest Service a letter, asking if there has been an investigation, what protocols are in place to prevent a controlled burn from getting out of control, and when those protocols were last updated.

Sen. Luján said lawmakers on Capitol Hill are in the process of making changes as well.

“There are a few pieces of legislation that the members of the delegation are working on,” he said. They specifically aim to change how the federal agency decides an area is safe for a prescribed burn.

“Who allowed that fire to take place and everything, that I’ve been told, is that when that decision was made to do the prescribed burn, that based on the model, it met the parameters, it was that it was safe—well, clearly, it wasn’t!”” Sen. Luján said. “One thing that doesn’t make any sense to me is we have a federal agency who’s responsible for weather predictions NOAA, why wouldn’t we just use their weather predictions to be able to make decisions like this as well, that’s just one example.”

Here’s an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican. It sounds like they are calling for increased transparency around procedures.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this week called for the federal government to change its rules about prescribed burns. She’s exactly right, and our congressional delegation should lead the charge in demanding all federal agencies managing land in New Mexico update procedures for approving and lighting burns. Part of the discussion has to be other methods of removing fuels from the forest, whether sustainable logging or targeted grazing.

In 2000, the devastating Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos began as prescribed burn, not by the Forest Service, but by the National Park Service. That fire, ignited May 4, 2000, and burned more than 43,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Twenty-two years later, it’s déjà vu.

In mid-March, a prescribed burn for the Gallinas Watershed in the Santa Fe National Forest near Las Vegas, N.M., was delayed because of snow on the ground. On April 6, the burn, named Las Dispenas Prescribed Burn, went ahead, with disastrous consequences.

A report from the Las Vegas Optic on April 6 was matter-of-fact: “A prescribed burn in the Las Dispensas treatment area, in the Santa Fe National Forest north of Las Vegas turned into a wildfire Wednesday afternoon, the Optic has learned.” At that time, the fire was estimated at 100-plus acres.

The decisions that led to the go-ahead for the burn must be examined in detail. A red-flag warning — meaning ideal conditions for wildland fire ignition — was in effect for much of the region that day. Conditions at the burn launch, though, were predicted to be calmer, fire managers have said.

The exact language: “forecasted weather conditions were within parameters for the prescribed burn.”

The obvious question: Just what were those parameters? Because when unexpected, erratic winds kicked up in the afternoon, the fire went rogue. Once the winds blew and sparks dispersed, the Hermits Peak Fire was born. Which begs another question: Did the U.S. Forest Service have adequate crews on hand in case the fire got out of hand?


To that end, Lujan Grisham is insisting federal prescribed burn guidelines need reviewing. That process should begin as soon as possible. This debate is crucial to Santa Fe. We’re not burning — yet — but any of the prescribed burns planned for the watershed here could go wrong. The city has a definite interest in making fire choices less risky.

I’m not sure what models were used, but that reminded me of this earlier story from the Albuquerque Journal:

Modeling tools

Rod Linn, leader of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s atmospheric modeling and weapons phenomenology team, studies how fire interacts with the atmosphere.

“The buoyancy that comes from the heating of the fire feeds back on the wind field around the fire, and redirects it and changes the way it then heats the unburned fuel and spreads,” Linn said.

LANL worked with the Forest Service to develop the FIRETEC tool, which models the shape and growth of wildland fires and prescribed burns.

FIRETEC runs on supercomputers and is primarily used for researching past fire behavior.

A newer LANL modeling tool, QUIC-Fire, can run on a laptop and is more accessible for crews planning fires or predicting wildfire growth.

The tool helps agencies design ignition patterns and predict where smoke will flow.

The lab was not involved in helping plan the prescribed burn that turned into the Hermits Peak Fire.

And perhaps an even broader question, what causes people to trust models?  Would be interesting to do a survey of fire behavior analysts.  Which perhaps circles back to what makes people trust climate models? Are the factors the same for micro and macro models? And what about the role of institutions (Forest Service, IPCC)?

24 thoughts on “Prescribed Fire Escapes and Building Trust: Three New Mexico News Stories”

  1. Once, most USFS personnel on a Ranger District were “lifers” and had careers on that one RD. They acquired “empirical knowledge.” Today, a Ranger District can be so homogenous in its ‘fly over state’ demographic, the ambitious and higher GS rated USFS employees must do assignments in those areas for career enhancement, but actually pine for a more diverse urban environment. All looking for a spot at first, the Forest Supervisor office; then at a Regional office and finally, the D.C. offices. The agency no longer has as much or as complete empirical knowledge on the District, the Forest, as was common several decades ago. And therein, IMHO, lies the problem with idiosyncratic local weather and geography that can bollox the best of plans. Add the fear of a mistake, and you either get nothing accomplished due to reticence to operate or costly mistakes that have wide and disparate outcomes. Worse, the sovereign and its minions bear no financial or political liability. Angry Congresspersons don’t make good law. The reality is, then, the bold make mistakes and the fearful accomplish nothing. Meanwhile, even in times of drought, vegetation survives and grows, and that adds to the fuel loads that only intensify fire when it happens.

    In my mind, I can see, 5000 years ago, several indigenous kids chasing each other in play with a burning brand from the home fire and oops—-fire in the grass. Hence, I expect fire. Accept fire. It is now unavoidable. Why not send the weapons to fight wild land fire like the Old Growth Climate Warrior is sending weapons to Ukraine? Go after it like it is a threat— fine particulates and greenhouse gas producing fire.

  2. Having just returned home from assignment to the Cooks Peak fire north of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon, I suggest that a more accurate assessmet is that the Calf Canyon fire overran the Hermits Peak fire during a period of exceptional winds that might never been seen during any persons time on a district.
    Another point is that on site empirical knowledge is becoming less and less relevant as the vegetation/weather/climate world where that knowledge was learned is slowly slipping away into a different climate reality.

    • Hi David: The “climate reality” here in western Oregon has been approximately about the same for thousands of years. I’ve posted Henry Hansen’s work on pollen analysis a few times, which demonstrates this trend. “Fire season” has been about the same for centuries. Historical research establishes that reality.

      Major wildfire events of the past 30 years would indicate that something has changed dramatically in our forests, though. The fact that the large majority of these events are taking place on federal forests and not so much on state, private, and tribal lands says that “climate” — which is everywhere — is probably not the main problem. My observation has been that a massive loss of experience and corresponding loss of empirical knowledge that has taken place in the management ranks of our federal lands during the past 35 years — coupled with an increasing array of crippling legal regulations — are the primary variables that have made these fires so predictable. And why the theoretical climate change and HCP computer models consistently fail.

      Knowledge is said to be a combination of education and experience. Whether the concern is wildfire control, road maintenance, forest management, reforestation, or weeding — the need for knowledgable individuals in the planning and maintenance of our federal lands has probably never been greater than now. It is the regulatory reality and reliance on modeling that have mostly changed reality, and empirical knowledge in that regard is also important.

      • “Oregon’s climate is changing. Over the past century,
        most of the state has warmed about two degrees (F).

        “The warming in Oregon has been similar to the average warming nationwide.”
        (see map)

        Snowpack is melting earlier in the year, and the flow of
        meltwater into streams during summer is declining.”

        “The flows of water in rivers and streams are increasing during late winter
        and early spring but decreasing during summer. Warmer winters have
        reduced average snowpack in the Cascades by 20 percent since 1950.”

        EPA 2016 –

        • Hi John: I would say that many of the statements in this EPA handout are datable. The fact it claims a 2-degree statewide change in 100 years (!), fails to mention that 100 years ago we didn’t have that accurate of a measure to begin with — and that “heat islands” have been formed at the Portland Airport and other places through the years that have increased temperature readings for those locations.

          Mostly, though, is that the climate has always changed, and it is an average. That means that warming trends and coming trends are required. We seem to be in a warming trend. My understanding is that we can adapt (always have), and that the warming has very little if anything to do with the presence of CO2, whether human-caused or other.

          • Bob: I have made no inquiry, but snow measure stations get overgrown by trees, which hold snow in their limbs and needles to sublimate, and never be
            measurable as ground moisture or snow depth. Move them and you still are not apples for apples. Unless, of course, there was an annual plan to manage the vegetation to ensure no overhead blockage, and the wind and all was not impaired. After all, the whole issue is “climate” as measured on micro sites.

    • The fact of the matter is burn plan writers and technical reviewers fail to model worst case scenarios and as such do not have adequate contingency resources immediately available. Proper worst case scenario fire modeling is a highly focused skill based on many factors gained from experience and knowing the ground your burning. I have seen numerous FFMO’s downplay the value of this skill and dismiss the efforts of those trying to correct this.

      • Thanks Jonah, this is helpful. Interesting how you seem to have a slightly different take from David on the value of on-site empirical knowledge.

        Especially from the trust angle. Folks are asking communities to trust them with prescribed burning and wildfire with resource benefits, and yet if the individuals whom the community knows (local experts) are not “as relevant”.. this could be a problem.

        • You are using the term “empirical” different than Merriam-Webster.
          “Empirical methods are objective, the results of a quantitative evaluation that produces a theory. Non-empirical methods are the opposite, using current events, personal observations, and subjectivity to draw conclusions.”

    • See to me there is a tension between ” we need to do more prescribed fire and wildfire with benefits” and “conditions are unpredictable due to climate change and/or the unique combination of previous fire suppression and whatever else (invasive species, e.g. cheatgrass).”

      If models aren’t working, and on site empirical knowledge is “less relevant” maybe we really shouldn’t be experimenting until we have it figured out.

  3. Luckily, the Forest Service has firm weather protocols for their prescribed fires and pile burning. The Park Service has ‘other ideas’. In Yosemite, they wanted to torch off about 80 acres within the footprint of the previous 1990 Arch Rock Fire. The trouble was, it was the last week in August, with very hot weather predicted. Their plan was to take advantage of the mornings downslope winds, and be done with the burn before the heat changes the wind direction back to upslope breezes. Well, they were an hour late igniting the burn, and within minutes, the fire had escaped, burning in thick brush and standing rotten snags. It was over 100 degrees that day. 17,000 acres and $17 million bucks later, the mistake had locals fuming, closing the Park during the Labor Day weekend, and beyond.

    • My crews performed more than 18,000 acres of prescribed fires on industrial forestlands in western Oregon during the 1970s and early 80s. We never had even one acre of “slop-over” in all of that time and areas. The key was proper fuel preparation, logical boundaries, and systematic ignitions. Then the “smoke management” bureaucrats got into the picture and made the process so expensive that landowners pretty much stopped burning 30 and 40 years ago. I’ve had a difficult time getting good answers as to what happened to those untreated plantations during recent wildfires.

  4. The are several reasons that fire with benefits is no longer applicable and hasn’t been for a while.
    First would be a build up of fuel due to lack of any active management. Second would be that our summers are hot and dry (call it climate change if you want) and fires during these periods are can become uncontrollable. This is especially true if the fire is allowed to burn till the rains come. The chances that there will be a wind event during this time are very good and will result in rapid spread of the fire and catastrophic destruction of our forests. Third is that is that if we want to conserve our remainding old growth we should stop burning it up.
    Save our forests! Stop playing with fire. Put the fires out!

  5. All well and good.
    Ignored in the discussion, though, is the 50,000 acre blaze (Cerro Pelado) burning on the other side of the Santa Fe NF from Hermits Peak with no officially confirmed cause at this point. I’m expecting tree on powerline or a campfire during the same high winds that allowed Hermits Peak to escape. Definitely no calls for USFS heads to roll on that one, I guess because recreation is still somewhat of a third rail when it comes to forest management in New Mexico, even though our recreation culture is an embarrassment to the concept of land ethics. New Mexico has gone all in on outdoor rec as THE carbon clean economic driver (a state outdoor rec division was created a couple years ago), with only lip service paid to resource impacts. Being modeling-ignorant myself, I nevertheless can’t understand why the same models that could have halted the Hermits Peak prescription couldn’t have performed a similar function on Cerro Pelado. Or that political points couldn’t be scored by calling out the public on its own responsibilities, given how many NM fires in the twenty years between the two escaped prescriptions have been due to abandoned campfires, hot cars on dry grass, or perhaps cigarettes tossed from cars on forest roads. The Forest Service is big (not big enough in my opinion), so I guess they’re easy to kick. And while I understand how Hermits Peak makes us want to kick something, I’m hoping we’ll stop doing so without considering our role.

  6. Calf Canyon wildfire also caused by a prescribed burn, investigators say

    Full story at:

    Opening paragraphs below:

    A federal forestry agency is claiming responsibility for igniting both of the blazes that merged to become the historic wildfire burning in northern New Mexico today.

    The cause of the Calf Canyon wildfire in April was a prescribed pile burn the U.S. Forest Service lit in January, the agency’s own investigators announced Friday morning.

    They concluded the Calf Canyon Fire “was caused by a pile burn holdover from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April.”

    A holdover fire, also called a sleeper fire, is one that remains dormant for a considerable time, the agency wrote.

    An escaped prescribed burn lit by the Forest Service is also responsible for the Hermit’s Peak fire, which merged with Calf Canyon in late April.

    • Yes, that information came out yesterday.
      And we’ll see what emerges from Cerro Pelado. Also the 200K Black Fire down in the Gila. All anyone is reporting is that they were human caused.
      There was actually pushback from recreationists last week when USFS closed the forests.

  7. Steve, Was the pile burn “prescribed” by the U.S. Forest Service? If not, who did it?

    I believe many people are able to understand the difference between a “prescribed pile burn” and a “prescribed burn” or “prescribed fire.”

    I also believe many people who want to keep logging public forests (including logging within old-growth and mature forests) will conflate a variety of things to….to keep logging public forests. This blog has a 10-year long record of such conflation.

    • I guess you COULD prescribe a pile burn, if the powers that be decide there are too many piles in our National Forests. Maybe write an EA, and consult the appropriate Agencies, six months in advance? Have the wildlife folks check the chosen piles for endangered species?


      • I assume that if a project is planned that will include burning slash piles, the effects of burning the slash piles will be disclosed in the project NEPA documents. And they will talk about the risk of “sleeper fires.” Right?


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