U.S. Forest Service burn started wildfire that nearly reached Los Alamos, N.M., agency says

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The U.S. Forest Service says its own prescribed burn started a 2022 wildfire that nearly burned into Los Alamos, N.M.

The Cerro Pelado fire burned across more than 60 square miles and crept within a few miles of the city of Los Alamos and its companion U.S. national security lab.

Investigations traced the outbreak of the wildfire in April 2022 under extremely dry conditions to hidden, smoldering remains of a prescribed burn of forest debris commissioned by the Forest Service earlier in the winter.


The revelation prompted immediate rebukes against the Forest Service by New Mexico political leaders.

The federal government already has acknowledged that it started the largest wildfire in state history, which charred more than 530 square miles of the Rocky Mountain foothills east of Santa Fe, N.M., destroying homes and livelihoods.

Miscalculations, inaccurate models and underestimation of dry conditions turned a controlled burn into New Mexico’s largest wildfire ever recorded.

June 21, 2022

Southwestern Regional Forester Michiko Martin said the Cerro Pelado fire west of Los Alamos was caused by a so-called holdover fire that stayed hidden but hot for months.

“A holdover fire is a fire that smolders undetectably,” Martin said in a statement. “In this case, despite being covered by wet snow, this holdover fire remained dormant for considerable time with no visible sign of smoke or heat.”