Investigators determine Calf Canyon Fire caused by holdover from prescribed fire

It later merged with the Hermits Peak Fire northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico

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Calf Canyon Fire
An April 8, 2022 map showing the Calf Canyon Fire before it grew large, another heat source nearby, and the Hermits Peak Fire.

The US Forest Service announced today that the Calf Canyon Fire northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico was caused by piles that were still burning more than two months after they were ignited near the end of January, 2022. The heat remained after having been at times under snow when it was detected on April 9. The piles were comprised of vegetation and debris remaining after a fuel treatment project.

A statement released by the Santa Fe National Forest indicated that crews constructed a fireline around the 1.5-acre blaze on April 9 and “…continued to monitor the fire over the next couple of days to ensure there were no signs of heat or flames near the edge. Ten days later,” the statement continued, “on April 19 the Calf Canyon Fire reignited and escaped containment lines. A wind event on April 22 caused significant fire spread, and the Calf Canyon Fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which was caused by an escaped prescribed burn.”

(Wildfire Today first covered the escape of the broadcast prescribed fire that created the Hermits Peak Fire on April 9. On May 13 we described the burning of the piles now confirmed to be the origin on the Calf Canyon Fire.)

The term “reignited” is misleading. The burning piles were never completely put out. Wildfire Today found records showing that on April 8 fixed wing aircraft with thermal heat sensors began mapping the Hermits Peak Fire nearly every night the rest of the month. From imagery on April 8 at 9:30 p.m. MDT the Infrared Analyst noted two small heat sources both about 4 miles from the fire, one to the northwest and another almost due west which later became the Calf Canyon Fire. The heat to the northwest, 2.7 miles north of the Calf Canyon Fire, was not detected in subsequent mapping flights, indicating that it went out on its own or was successfully suppressed by firefighters.

Map Calf Cyn Hermits Peak Fire 1 a.m. May 20, 2022
Map of the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fires at 1 a.m. April 20, 2022 by the Incident Management Team. The red arrow, added by Wildfire Today, points to the Calf Canyon Fire which may have spotted, or there was an additional burn pile that spread.

Here are the results, related to what became the Calf Canyon Fire, of the Hermits Peak Fire aerial fire mapping from April 8 through April 21, 2022 (times are CDT):

  • 8 @ 9:30 p.m.: heat noted at the pile burning site
  • 9: (firefighters constructed line around a 1.5-acre fire spreading at the pile burning site)
  • 10 @ 3 a.m.: heat noted
  • 10 @ 10 p.m.: mapping mission unable to be filled (UTF)
  • 11 @ 8:45: heat noted
  • 13 @ 2 a.m.: not noted
  • 13 @ 7:30 p.m.: not noted
  • 14 @ 8:15 p.m.: not noted
  • 15 @ 7:30 p.m.: not noted
  • 16 @ 10 p.m.: UTF
  • 18 @ 1:45 a.m.: not noted
  • 18 @ 10 p.m.: UTF
  • 20 @ 1 a.m.: intense heat noted at two locations at the pile burning site which were separately mapped by the Infrared Analyst. (See the map above. Either the fire spotted about 0.4 miles out ahead, or a second area in the pile burning project began spreading)
  • 21 @ 1:30 a.m.: had grown to about 220 acres; was approximately half a mile wide and one mile long)

It is unknown if the mapping mission each night included the pile burning site four miles west of the Hermits Peak Fire, or if the Infrared Analyst was careful to examine the imagery for small detections of heat at the pile burning site.

After April 20 the Calf Canyon Fire was large and merged with the Hermits Peak Fire on the 22nd when both fires blew up. At that time the Hermits Peak fire was nearly contained and had been relatively quiet for several days, but pushed by very strong winds both fires ran 11 miles to the northwest in narrow parallel footprints until the wind speed decreased, allowing the flanks of both fires to spread laterally until they merged. The winds monitored at a weather station that day near Las Vegas, NM recorded sustained speeds of 40 to 50 mph with gusts up to 67 while the relative humidity dropped as low as 6 percent.

“We don’t have enough resources to do everything we want to do at one time so we have to prioritize the resources we have at the right location,” said Incident Commander Carl Schwope in a briefing on April 23.

The two merged fires, both the result of escaped prescribed fires and now called Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire, are now 17 miles wide, 45 miles long, and have burned more than 312,000 acres, about 1/3 the size of Rhode Island. If you were driving from the south end of the fire at Las Vegas, NM on Highway 518 going north, it would take about an hour to reach the north edge of the fire near Angostura.

Map Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Map Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire, 12:20 a.m. MDT May 27, 2022

The article was edited May 31, 2022 to add the time that the fire was mapped each night.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jay and Karen.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

38 thoughts on “Investigators determine Calf Canyon Fire caused by holdover from prescribed fire”

  1. We don’t have enough resources. Don’t burn and leave heat. Don’t burn if the weather can change. There is a lot more, of course, but these are common sense to get started.

    1. With how many piles are lit during these types of prescribed burns, it’s not currently common-practice on larger pile burns to cold-trail and mop-up each individual pile. But instead, monitor the area after all ignitions have been completed.

      1. It’s not common practice and that’s the way we’ve always done it go hand-in-hand.

      2. However, if it is still burning two months later and 60 mph winds are in the forecast…

        1. A way to escalate response to rx operations at a level lower than declaring a wildfire would be helpful. A way to indicate urgent need to keep a fire contained. I’ve read / heard enough aars to know lack of resources just before a major known weather event is a common theme.

          Come up with a snazzy name for it. Allow regional or nation resources to mobilize quickly to the prescribed burn. Have a pot of money set aside just for this. Train folks about when it’s appropriate. Work hard to remove any stigma for pulling the trigger on this type of response. Celebrate fire managers who use the system successfully to fully contain their burns ahead of really challenging weather.

          Won’t work all the time, but often enough there are pretty good indiciations of trouble weather 72 hours out.

          We need to burn more, this is a specific recommendation to allow for continued ramping up of proactive fire management while mitigating for extreme weather within the burn season.

    2. You are right. So it needs to be considered why did it happen. It’s complicated and surely is pressure down the FS chain of command, from Congress and also from the prevailing paradigm of such widespread and intensive fuel treatments. In the zeal to get it done, the adverse impacts are being ignored to a large extent. Time to do the cost/benefit analysis which I believe will say to scale it all down considerably, and to recognize that at this point, what could be lost may far outweigh what is gained.

  2. Say goodbye to ever having a burn plan rate out as T2 ever again. They will almost all certainly rate as T1 based of the new criteria when they are released.

  3. Thank you Bill for helping to bring the truth to light. The only path to improving the situation is an honest view on what actually happened. It is hard to express the pain this has caused so many in New Mexico, and it’s not a natural result of an activity that has some inherent risks. Especially the Hermits Peak Fire. It’s negligence, which really understates it, and whatever benefits that prescribed burns might have is negated by these types of events in the cost/benefit analysis. Even if such events are not frequent, they are disastrous when they occur because prescribed burn fires tend to be really large and hot fires. Prescribed burns need to stop much longer than 90 days, and the Forest Service chain of command culture needs to be seriously examined. BTW, we all love the firefighters.

  4. This doesn’t go with one particular article but I want to post my question. Police caught that female actually lighting the fires in the bisque. Written in the article was that “arson is a MISDEMEANOR “ ????????????.

    1. That article has a tiny bit of truth in that arson can be a wobbler offense and it can either fall as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime including malice and intent and what was torched

  5. “We don’t have enough resources to do everything we want to do at one time so we have to prioritize the resources we have at the right location,” aka, “the battlefield triage” writ too often.

    Yes, we all do love firefighters. But in any group the individuals run the gamut between the intelligent or at least harmless to a bit simple, to a fraction of determined damned-fool yahoos.

    I have worked on a mop-up crew with a five-gallon backpack that was totally impotent against the red-hot roots. Add wind and reap and weep. Obviously, the piles contained wood heavy enough to resist ignition from flame-fronts or embers. “Best” practice. No practicing at this level, please . . .

  6. I just bet there will be an FLA or two coming out of it. How much they get whitewashed is a different matter, but I’ll definitely read them…

  7. FLA’s I used to thinks they are great, not so much anymore, they are great for deflecting…..Where is the ACOUNTABILTY! Yep there is none….and not for a long time now…..

    Bill, You say/report that this is a hold over pile (These may not be your words), back in early April it was detected and contained at 1.5 ac. And then it escaped containment…
    My point here is that it was a hold over then it was a wildfire that was suppressed. The term Holdover does not altogether work for this fire, it was a fire that was not completely controlled……am I missing something. They had a real opportunity to put this to bed…..right or wrong?

    And what about the detection flights, maybe another opportunity…..maybe……

    I guess I come from a background that a small 1.5 ac fire is going to be monitored for days if not maybe weeks until it is called out, check it every day….kill it…..Of course I do not know what actions were taken on this fire, I am sure they were good/confident with leaving it, this thing gotcha once, but twice……not to mention the wind that may have been in the forecast. I know they had there hand full. the Good old swiss cheese thing will get you every time …I guess we will have to wait for the deflective FLA to come out……

    Just one last thing, as I recall we would dig handline down to mineral soil around each pile, sometime incorporating more than one pile, we did this to prevent creeping…..does nothing for strong winds….. When piles creep that is a good indicator that there is no line….at least not good line…..

    If I am way off base let me have it I can take it, I have been wrong before……Peace…..

    1. Back in my Region 5 days I remember line being dug around all the piles.

      The other Regions I’ve worked, I have never seen line built around piles. Piles are typically burned in fall and winter puts them out. Probably a less reliable option these day.

      Also the Forest I currently work completes thousands of acres of piling per year and we are still behind on what needs to be done. Not thousand of piles thousands of acres of piles.

    2. I get your point about the origin of the Calf Fire — holdover burn pile vs. a wildfire that “was not completely controlled.” But the original heat source, the origin, was a burn pile. The spread was stopped at 1.5 acres, then days later it continued to grow. The spread of the Hermits Peak fire was also stopped for several days, then it continued to grow due to winds gusting to 67 mph with an RH of six percent. The original heat sources for both wildfires were prescribed fires.

      1. This discussion gives me a little hope — because it seems like a genuine and true attempt to parse out the reality of what occurred. Maybe the FS will begin to have a discussion like this. I mean a truly honest discussion, and not one primarily focused on PR and achieving their mandated fuel treatment quotas.

        Forest Management is definitely between a rock and a hard place. In my own mind, I have come to the conclusion that primarily trying to control human fire-starting behaviors may be best, and to let some wildfires burn when optimal circumstances exist. I get how risky that is these days, and that is the hard place. In any event, wildfires will burn anyway, no matter what is done to suppress them.

        But here in NM, most very large and hot fires have been human-caused, even if about 50% of total fires are not human-caused. I am in favor of long forest closures during the dry season when necessary. Much more funding for forest law enforcement. In the forest that I live near, right below the Santa Fe watershed, kids go up and “party” with unsafe campfires, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Altogether a combination that is very risky in terms of fire, and needs to be curtailed. Maybe the time has passed that it’s reasonable for campers to have fires outside of designated campfire rings in the warm seasons. Certainly electrical lines that go through forest should be inspected before the spring winds each year. Perhaps technology can be developed to make electrical lines less dangerous in high winds.

        There could be much more emphasis on helping people to harden their homes and properties to fire, although I also think property owners have the responsibility to do it, unless there are some serous extenuating circumstances. Certainly attention to alternative egresses from forest communities, which oftentimes only have one egress, would be beneficial.

        And we will still have fires, plenty of them. With such increasing fire conditions, that is inevitable. And some will be very large and high intensity and it will be painful to see. That is now built into the situation in our forests. Perhaps prescribed burns in the late fall and early winter in strategic areas would be determined to be safe, but only if there are sufficient resources to plan, implement and monitor them well. And on a more manageable scale.

        I think the Forest Service needs to reconsider their fuel treatment program with a genuine and open-minded analysis. In the analysis of the large fuel treatment project outside of Santa Fe, which has recently received the draft decision of a FONSI, there was no consideration, analysis or even mention of the possibility of an escaped prescribed burn. That is not genuine analysis, because we all know they do happen, and that it does and can have huge effects on the forest and surrounding communities should be a part of the cost/benefit analysis. Then see where such a legitimate analysis leaves them…….

        But all this may be a dream, and perhaps the Forest Service as an institution is incapable of real objective truth-seeking at this point. I hope not.

  8. It’s very possible that Randy loses his job over these. At the very least the Reg Forester, Forest Supt and Dist Ranger should all be removed. Jaelith should be removed too, for about 100 other reasons.

    1. And you really expect to have more competent people take their place? Maybe having those folks getting burned by these types of events might be the greatest education they get. If you keep firing or punishing the troops for simply doing what they think is the right thing, whose going to want to take their place? The best learning experiences often come from screwing something up. Willful or culpable negligence is another story. Can ’em, not promote them.

      1. To Skeptic… As I smiled your response I also agree wholeheartedly. I think (naive) people in many places think that replacements (either at the chief or RF or other levels) will be any different. Although I do think that we could do a LOT better than Randy – and not just because he has a less-than-stellar personal behavior and treatment towards some of us under him – but because we need someone who is more adroit and experienced in wildland fire than he is with avoiding the topic and prolonging issues. But… as you allude, good luck with that.

      2. Skeptic,
        Anybody that’s not taking an unreasonable amount of intravenous drugs wouldn’t expect them to be backfilled with superior competence.
        As far as “the troops” go they hardly qualify as such at that level. At that level they are sycophants that do whatever they’re told and apathetically pushed those order down.

        If Line is going to push the REAL troops to burn they must know that their heads are on the chopping block too if the burn walks away. They must know that, if they push too hard, it will be their families and careers that suffer, not just those of the troops and communities they adversely impact. They must know that we will not follow the disgraceful emailed instructions of some WO PIO. We will get the story out one way or another. It’s high time for Line to reap some accountability and know that they will not be insulated by their own arrogant PI apparatus.

    2. The forest supe on the Santa Fe has only been there about a year or so but is a good one. I don’t now that she’ll get pushed out but she certainly may decide to pursue a fresh start somewhere else. That might be for the best.

      I have no inside info on how the Rx happened but have heard that it was within prescription but man it had to be close. The DR is on the hook for that, generally not the kind of decision that the forest supe would be involved with, at least in my experience.

  9. “…crews constructed a wireline around the 1.5 acre blaze…..continued to monitor” Am I missing something or did they not 100% mop up the 1.5 acre slop over? That would seem like pretty basic fire fighting. Did the escape come from that 1.5 acre fire or another part of the pile burning project?

    I read somewhere that the project was 200 acres. At even say 10 piles per acre that is a heck of a lot of piles to check
    and mop up. But even a couple engine crews with some of the hand held hear detectors that are now available would have had a picture of the over all situation in a short period of time. Given that the area was headed into the main portion of their fire season (year) assigning the resources needed to mop up the entire 200 acres would have seemed

  10. Forgoing reading all of the comments I have to say that the project leading to Calf Canyon was just plain sloppy workmanship. Can there be any excuse for permitting the unimaginable to happen? Come on folks! You’ve let the unimaginable bite you in the ass. Surely there are portable sensor probes that a few unfortunate underlings could carry while slogging through any remaining snow paying visits to every burned pile. Sounds like a boring yet potentially enjoyable assignment. LR

  11. The local talk/rumors from day 1 of Calf Canyon surrounded USFS as the source of the fire, yet it took 6 weeks to change the official cause from “under investigation” to what we now know. (BTW, inciweb still shows “under investigation” as of 20:40 mdt 5-28-2022). What new information could possibly be gained in this six week period, when there was an acknowledged incident that provoked USFS fire suppression activities days prior to the major Calf Canyon flare up? Not a good way to increase any manner of trust.

    1. Unfortunately there is little trust nowadays for the Forest Service in Mora and San Miguel Counties.
      Anyone who has lived here more than 2 years know that the Forest Service should not burn in the spring, our windiest season. Simply put the rule should be DO NOT BURN IN APRIL OR MAY.

      Follow the example of the Scandinavian countries ….burn in winter when snow is on the ground.

  12. All that beautiful Forest gone don’t have to worry about thinning or managing that area for a long long time, we will continue to burn do to neglect and will destroy all are natural resources like wood products and such (The animals, OWL’s !)There will be nothing left thanks to all the environmentalists and there agenda.

    1. Actually, most of what burned is probably not gone. That assessment is too pessimistic. Poderosa pine is almost unbelievably fire adapted. I have seen myself where after just a few short years, it takes a real expert to even see that there was a wildfire there.

      What might take a long time, unfortunately, is the destruction of the high-elevation spruce forest. I don’t know how much of that was destroyed but when the spruce-fir forest goes, that can take centuries to come back. But not so with ponderosa pines.

  13. My friend works in R2, for the RO. She told me that her Region wants to start burning big acres in the Forest by Colorado Springs and Denver. She’s scared (of her own agency) because she lives somewhere immediately west of Denver.

    1. Well, I guess about 17 years is long enough to forget about the Hayman Fire that my colleague on the adjacent district started. Now, assuming they go through with it, there won’t be as much of an investigation to determine who started it!

  14. I was a forester and burn boss for a large timber company in California. We primarily burned machine piles, about 2,000 acres every year. When we had heavy sierra snows things went well. But as we saw the effects of drought, every piled unit required assessment for mopping up with a cat or a water truck. The company has now stopped all burning. I believe where timber can be merchandised, biomass facilities need to be subsidized and recognized for the renewable energy that it is. At least it can be burned relatively cleanly and with human and ecological benefit as opposed to the total money suck and ecological travesty of stand replacing fires. I appreciate the discussion on this website. Thanks for the forum.

    1. Excellent point Dan. Biomass harvest = less fuel in the woods plus more jobs, plus more energy in the grid. Win, win win… especially if that harvest is directed near communities in WUI.

  15. Okay,
    I’ve got to come clean.
    When I read Bill’s first article. questioning the pile burn as ignition of Calf Canyon, I put it to the lower probabilities.
    I mean, swat my behind with a watermelon rind, how could professionals do that?
    Then, again, it was probably just district boys and the Las Vegas District is a bit cheesy, and arrogant.
    Mostly, though, we’re understaffed. Back a few decades ago, the Pecos would have about twenty guys on timber staff, alone. Now the Pecos RD, which comprises the lion’s share of the eastern half of the Santa Fe, is all but abandoned and run, mostly, out of Vegas.

    But, yeah, who would have thunk they were that catastrophically incompetent? If they were hotshots, or district boys, they should have used the mop up for practice.

    I guess I’m getting old.

    For the record, my home was spared, I was evaced for a couple/few weeks. Saved as much by the treated woods above my place, in the Cow Creek area. Happy to say I participated in that, up there, a few decades ago.

    Now, can I say how much I hate piles?
    I hate them.
    I’ve been a drop & lop boy since Reagan damn near killed all the forests.
    I can say I brought the Whitewater Baldy (what had been NM’s largest fire, until now) to ground 15 years before it started.
    That was drop & lop.

    I never thought that piles could stay hot for that long, here in my backyard, literally just a few miles away from me. Not here. Things burn pretty fast, and thoroughly, around here. I’ve been here for four decades, never thought that could happen, after so many months. Those piles must have been stupid large.

    Ah well, like I said, I hate piles. They just make contracts a bitch. Never trusted them. I mean, the idea is to reduce flame heights, right?

    My home is safe, at the moment, from that monster. Even though they sat on their hands for weeks when they should have known the Skyline trail was the thin line that could have been held to keep it from crossing into the Pecos. My hunting grounds for ‘shrooms to elk, are still getting toasted, values at risk don’t include forests, anymore. Dear friends, on the other side, have lost everything. And a unique cultural backwater has all but been annihilated.
    Just because some clowns wouldn’t get down on their knees and stick their hands in the dirt?
    Sorry. Some folks should get that better pay, working in the food service industry.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It was hard to watch the fire burn through the skyline trail with no resistance, no fight, because it was Just Wilderness. And I hope this will lead to the termination of Lop and Pile, permanently.

  16. All comments have been honest and helpful. But we must look at the qualifications and most of all the Experience of those who continue to hold these positions. I will continue to state that “Seat at Your Desk” adminstrators are the worst. We need mature responsible EXPERIENCED personnel. Forestry Personnel who have “Out in the Forest Experience”. Education in Botany, Zoology a must. I believe there are many, many Institutions of Learning Forestry in Idaho. A “Continuing Education” Requirement a MUST at these institutions. Accountability requires Firing those who have forgotten and neglected their responsibility. The extent of the Damge and Lose of these fires requires this action so that it will not happen again. How can these people be trusted to hold positions of responsibility at other locations. The cost is more than beyond the benefit.

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