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After Accidentally Starting Huge Wildfire, Forest Service Admits It’s Stumped by Climate Change

After Accidentally Starting Huge Wildfire, Forest Service Admits It’s Stumped by Climate Change
Managing wildfires is complicated, difficult work. Here, a wildlands firefighter tries to keep a burning log from rolling down a hill in a Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon hotspot.

The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history is still burning. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, which began in April, has covered more than 341,471 acres so far. The fire has destroyed hundreds of homes, burned through important cultural sites and resources, and forced thousands of people to evacuate—some whom are are still under evacuation warnings.

Progress has been made, though, and the fire is now 72% contained. But the damage done to public trust is far from over—thanks in large part to the fact that the fire began with two intentional Forest Service burns. On Tuesday, the Forest Service released a report summarizing its internal review of what went wrong in New Mexico and how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. The report noted that agency and personnel errors related to weather forecasting, fire modeling, fuel risk assessment, and communication contributed to the tragic outcome.

While the fires eventually joined together on April 24 to become a fast-spreading, complex blaze, they started out as separate fires. The Calf Canyon wildfire began as a prescribed “pile” burn of brush and thinned vegetation in January, which lay dormant for months, smoldering underground until conditions were right for it to blossom. The Hermits Peak fire, meanwhile, started as a prescribed burn on April 6, which was officially declared out of control just a few hours after it was ignited. The two fires joined together on April 24 to become a fast-spreading, complex blaze.

In the report, the Forest Service said the agency will learn lessons from how these prescribed burns got out of control. However, the report also emphasized that prescribed burns remain critical—especially under climate change, as wildfires become higher risk, more widespread, and more severe….

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