Friday Wildfire Roundup


It’s summertime, so wildfire is in the news..

The Practice That Can’t be Named

The Southwest Fire Science Consortium will never get a Nobel (not “cool” enough to the Powers That Be) but they have won my award for Everything Science Should Be.. responsive to peoples’ concerns, integrated with practitioners, and gosh-danged helpful.

We had a serious  discussion last week on managed wildfire (or Muwoof, or Mafee?). Well it turns out that NAU, SWFSC and Forest Stewards did a science synthesis paper on this topic, what they call a science synthesis.  I am not enough of a fire person to understand all of it, so hopefully someone will read and chime in.

It’s not too often that I get a “laugh out loud” moment in the stuff I read, but the discussion about what term to use.. struck me as pretty funny. Yes, if you want to study something, a definition might be helpful. 🙂

Unfortunately, until the wildfire community settles on a shared lexicon, it will be difficult to track, measure, and understand managed wildfires. Various wildfire incident databases refer to the strategy using different names throughout time, making comparison difficult (Young et al. 2020). Even communication between land managers can become clouded because of differing terminology (Davis et al. 2022).

The “History of Wildland Fire Response and Nomenclature” is pretty interesting and begins on page 2.

Cerro Pelado Fire Was Started by a Burn Pile- Why Did it Take So Long to Figure This Out?

* (Thanks to Sarah Hyden) The Forest Service admits to another pile burn as the start of the Cerro Pelado fire.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sharply criticized the federal agency in a response Monday afternoon.

“I am — again — outraged over the U.S. Forest Service’s negligence that caused this destruction,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to to hold the federal government accountable for each of the disastrous fires they caused in our state last summer.”

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., released a statement saying: “It is frustrating and deeply concerning to learn now that the Cerro Pelado Fire was also caused by an escaped prescribed fire.

“The warming climate is making our forests more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. That’s a reality that our Forest Service can and must urgently respond to when deciding when and how to do prescribed burns. We cannot catch up to this reality if it takes nearly a year to even make the findings on the Cerro Pelado Fire public,” Heinrich said.

“As the Forest Service does the necessary work of updating its modeling and use of prescribed fires, it must also prioritize rebuilding the public’s trust,” Heinrich added. “This will require more transparency and much more concerted and authentic engagement with New Mexicans than the Forest Service has shown up to this point.”

State Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Cabinet Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said in a statement that agency’s failure to promptly disclose the fire’s cause, further harmed “New Mexicans who have been unable to file insurance claims pending disclosures of the fire’s origins.”


Despite being covered by wet snow, this holdover fire remained dormant for considerable time with no visible sign of smoke or heat,” said Martin, in the statement released Monday.

I had a thought.. with all the high technology and defense contractors being funded, e.g. Invidia and Lockheed Martin teaming up to use AI and “real-time sensor data”, seems like a low-hanging fruit would be to put sensors in pile burns left over the winter or maybe fly heat-sensing drones over them, or some other sophisticated, repurposed from the military technology?

FEMA has so far paid out less than 1% of what Congress allocated for victims of NM wildfireFrom Source NM.

Good story. If you want a reaction, try The Hotshot Wakeup wondering why FEMA can’t get its act together.

and yet (also from the Hotshot Wakeup) the DOL is capable of doing its job.

DOL (Department of Labor) Investigation of Federal Contractor Violation of Wage Laws

We oldsters won’t be surprised that some federal contractors weren’t paying people correctly. From DOL press release:

As a result of its investigation, the division recovered $152,003 in overtime wages and fringe benefits, as well as an additional $12,577 in liquidated damages for the affected workers. Back wages recovered ranged from $101 to $14,783 per worker. In addition, the company paid $16,981 in civil money penalties assessed by the department for the employer’s violations.

Hotshot Wakeup podcast this week explored both the above stories in detail, and suggested that $17K is not much of a penalty for trying to sleaze out on $152 K for employees.


Hotshot Wakeup also pointed out, in the same podcast, some of the close ties between the fire aviation industry and defense efforts of the less upfront kind.  My sources tell me that NSC is involved in all wildfire topics (going back to the FOIA from earlier this week).  So there are ties that aren’t obvious to those of us outside the industry. Which circles back to the issue of “what tech can watch pile burns?”

16 thoughts on “Friday Wildfire Roundup”

  1. I’ll answer the question “what tech can watch pile burns?“. Why, a “Forest tech” sure could! 🤣. But then, there would have to be one hired, trained and motivated….. Just kidding, but I couldn’t let that one pass – someone else would’ve beat me to it….🤣🤣

  2. There are some practical techniques and precautions that could help reduce escapes and problems.

    1) Make large piles smaller.
    2) Make firelines around piles bigger.
    3) Put a waterproof covering on piles, so that they ignite easier and burn quicker.
    4) Situate piles as far from vegetation as possible.

    It is not uncommon to see large landing piles burn throughout the winter. We’ll need more people out in the field, checking last fall’s burn piles. (Yes, even if they have to use snowshoes to get there.)

  3. For less than $10k each Forest could get a small drone that fits in a day pack, that has an IR camera and enough batteries for 4 hrs of flight.
    If Forest Supervisors were held accountable and had to pay the same restitution as private land owners had to pay, I think there would be a change in the percentage of escaped pile burns and escaped prescribed fire.

    • Instead, prescribed burn escapes are swept under the rug in the Santa Fe National Forest. The (local) Forest Service has pointed to climate change as the primary cause of the three escaped prescribed burn wildfires in the SFNF last year, and has said it didn’t matter what the source of the ignition was, such a fire would have happened anyway. That simply cannot be considered to be true, because many forested areas go many decades without an ignition that precipitates a wildfire. The USFS is not taking any genuine responsibility for having burned almost 400,000 acres in the SFNF with three escaped burns last year.

      Until they do, I expect more escapes. Right now, there is more cutting and slash being piled in the SFNF to the north of Santa Fe — more piles to possibly smolder and escape. Prior to the Calf Canyon Fire there was airplane reconnasaince, checking for hot spots. There were hotspots noted. That did not stop the Calf Canyon Fire from igniting when high winds came in April. High winds in April are normal for this area.

      Prior to the Calf Canyon Fire, in 2019, there was another pile burn escape, declared wildfire, in the Calf Canyon area. Fortunately that pile burn escape occurred in January, so the fire was fairly quickly contained. The Forest Service completed a FLA for the incident, and then just a few years later, another pile burn escaped in the same area that was catastrophic — entire communities were burned over, hundreds of structures lost, rural residents’ livelihoods damaged or destroyed, post-fire flooding, damaged acequias, degradation of the Las Vegas water supply, along with three deaths from post-fire flooding.

      This has no significantly deterred the USFS, and they refused to consider the potential for an escaped prescribed burn in the Santa Fe Mountains Project analysis — despite many requests to do so. There was not one word in the environmental assessment about the possibility of an escaped prescribed burn, and therefore no mitigations, and no consideration of how to more safely implement burns specific to this project area and climate. The public is afraid.

      Close to half the of the forest to the east of Santa Fe has been burned by wildfire ignited by the USFS. The other half+, which is extending from Santa Fe to the east, is more populated, and the property damages would be even greater if the USFS sets a fire here. A large portion of the Jemez side of the SFNF has also been burned by escaped prescribed burns ignited by federal agencies.

      I believe that the USFS has no requirements to take on responsibility for igniting fires and burning vast areas of forest and private properties, burning down homes, and even causing deaths, does give license to continue on without sufficient safeguards.

      • Yet the Forest Service goes after other entities that start fires and collects damages from them. Hmm.
        And the Forest Service (and many public service announcements) tell the public to not leave campfires unattended and to make sure they are “dead out”, yet the Forest Service cannot do the same?
        I have seen this type of inconsistency with the Forest Service on too many things for too long…it’s a lack of accountability. If you are a Line Officer and these things happen on your watch, you need to be reassigned, simple as that. And the oversights need to be shared to keep others from repeating them.

        • I wonder how successful the “it’s climate change, would’ve burned anyway” argument will be if used by power companies in litigation? Not much I would think.

    • Following the 2020 Labor Day Fires I was involved in documenting post-fire conditions and was very interested in participating in recovery planning. However, I hit a brick wall with ODF, USFS, and BLM so far as access to any of the locations because of “danger.” According to newspaper photos and accounts, it wasn’t too dangerous for migrant crews to be planting low quality seedlings beneath standing snags, but taxpayers were not allowed access in order to videotape. Hmm.

      My counter suggestion was to use video drones, and I had just completed a 14-minute instructional video on that topic the previous year for forestry students at the Coos Bay Community College — right before the pandemic made field work with drones impossible. The people in charge were consistent in their responses — they didn’t. Public Zoom meetings were followed by ignoring emails and not returning phone calls (office meetings were out because people were “working from home”).

      Drones are the logical tools for documenting post-fire conditions — including hot spots and salvage timber sales — and might also be great for igniting prescribed fires and monitoring wildfires. That should certainly be the next step economically and safety-wise. Here is the student video (which got integrated into a later “distance learning” video):

      • I agree with you on drone/UAS usage. Unfortunately, in the Forest Service, they chose to have the drone/UAS program under Fire & Aviation – and that has stifled other uses of drones in the FS. The BLM put their drone/UAS program under engineering and Washington DNR put their drone program in Natural Resources. The differences in drone usage among these 3 organizations are quite telling. I know FS employees who buy their own personal drones and use them for work purposes on their own time on the weekends just to get around the red tape and frustration. Fire & Aviation in the Forest Service is under State, Private and Tribal Forestry … not even under the same Deputy Chief as the National Forest System. That doesn’t help either.

  4. Regarding Cerro Pelado, at what point does the Regional Forester, who came to the job with nearly no fire experience or experience working in the Southwest whatsoever, bare any responsibility?

    • Anon: I would assume any responsibility would rest with whoever hired or assigned the inexperienced person to do a job they were not qualified to do. Who gave this Regional Forester the job in the first place?

    • Unfortunately, our system of employment, more so in government than private, has evolved from a system of hiring and promotion based on most experienced and most knowledgeable determining “most” qualified to where we are today. Today many other factors, other than knowledge, ability and actual experience, make up “most” qualified. In the fire program of the USFS this began back in the early 80’s and has lead them to where they are today.

      We have been seeing this amplified on IMT’s as personal are promoted to supervisory levels with little actual IA experience and literally no experience with direct attack where the line construction safety zone is one step away into the black that is still hot. Yet they are signed off as qualified to be overhead. In prescribed fire this leads to books that require sign off by people that often have minimal experience in a wide variety of fuel types, but they sign off on a person as qualified to be an RXB1. Then the RXB1 is transferred from the southwest to the PNW or some other region, and put in charge of prescribed fire in an area where they have little if any experience.

      I’m convinced that the reason many fires are getting so large is that the IMT’s don’t actually know or have any experience in anything other than the “Big Box” or “Landscape” approach. Couple the inexperience with the threat of litigation and the problem will never be solved even by copious amounts of money being poured into it. This will show up more and more as the push for prescribed fire grows and small escapements turn into confligrations. There’s many excuses/reasons to not be able control a wildfire, but it’s pretty tough to get people to believe those same excuses/reasons repeatedly, when you lose control of a prescribed burn.

      Probably, and even bigger is, the problem that few people will call out the real problems because of the career repercussions. More often than not the problem will be promoted out of the area instead of just eliminated. More committees will be established, more task forces will be funded and the beat goes on.

  5. From a buck stops here perspective, the RF is next up right? The previous leadership on the Santa Fe NF have all left or been pushed out, and the chief who hired the RF has retired. The RF oversaw the Cerro Pelado investigation and lack of transparency that ensued, which by itself further eroded trust with communities in northern NM (totally independent of the escaped Rx fire finding). A ton of missteps in a short amount of time that will take generations to recover from.


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