Miscalculations, errors blamed for massive New Mexico blaze

Smoke from the Calf Canyon/Hermit Peak fire drifts over Las Vegas, N.M.
An 80-page U.S. Forest Service report lays out the government’s role in causing the largest wildfire ever recorded in New Mexico.
(Robert Browman / Associated Press)

Multiple miscalculations, inaccurate models and a lack of understanding of just how dry things are in the Southwest turned a planned burn meant to reduce the threat of wildfire into the largest blaze in New Mexico’s recorded history, the U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday.

The agency quietly posted an 80-page review that details the planning missteps and the conditions on the ground as crews ignited the prescribed burn in early April. The report states officials who planned the operation underestimated the amount of timber and vegetation that was available to fuel the flames, the exceptional dry conditions and the threat to rural villages, and water supplies, if things went awry.

Within hours of lighting a test fire on that April day, multiple spot fires were reported outside containment lines and there were not enough resources or water to rein them in.


“The devastating impact of this fire to the communities and livelihoods of those affected in New Mexico demanded this level of review to ensure we understand how this tragic event unfolded,” U.S. Forest Chief Randy Moore wrote. “I cannot overstate how heartbreaking these impacts are on communities and individuals.”

As of Tuesday, the blaze had charred more than 533 square miles, making it the largest fire to have burned this spring in the U.S. It comes during a particularly ferocious season in which fire danger in overgrown forests across the West has reached historic levels due to decades of drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change.

The number of acres burned so far this year is more than 2½ times the national average for the period in the past 10 years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. So far, 31,000 wildfires have burned more than 5,000 square miles in the United States.

Firefighters in New Mexico battling the nation’s largest active wildfire say favorable weather helped them prevent the blaze from growing over the last 24 hours.

May 23, 2022

Anger and frustration have been simmering among residents and elected officials in northern New Mexico, where several hundred homes have been destroyed and thousands of residents displaced.

Many mountainsides have been reduced to ash and once-towering ponderosa pine trees have been turned into charred toothpicks. Spots considered sacred by the ranching and farming families who have called the region of Indigenous pueblos home for generations have been wiped out.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) called the Forest Service review incredibly disturbing, pointing to the multiple errors in the calculations that went into planning for the prescribed burn.


“Forest Service failures destroyed many rich and proud New Mexico communities,” she said in a statement. “The rains may cause a second flood disaster. As the report notes, the Forest Service put numerous homes, communities, lives, historic sites, and watersheds at risk.”

The report stated that the crew conducting the prescribed burn believed it was operating within approved limits and had a plan to construct a line where they could check the fire’s progress and cease ignitions if the parameters were exceeded.

But the fire was burning in much drier conditions than the crew understood, according to the Forest Service’s analysis of fuel and weather information.

“Persistent drought, limited snow and rain, fine fuel accumulation, and fuel loading from burn unit preparation all contributed to increasing the risk of escape,” the report stated.

A mix of spot weather forecasts and onsite observations were the only methods of weather collection used. The days preceding the prescribed fire were described as a “weather roller coaster,” and the agency said more data should have been used to assess the conditions.

The report also said managers failed to accurately assess the complexity of the planned burn, providing a false picture that indicated risks has been reduced.


President Biden recently flew over the fire and stopped briefly in New Mexico to assure residents the federal government would take responsibility for its role in the blaze.