Family members of three people who were killed last year in a flash flood that originated from the burn scar of the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history are suing the U.S. Forest Service. The wrongful death lawsuit, according to a PBS report, was filed earlier this month and alleges the USFS was negligent in managing the original prescribed burn and also failed to close roads and prevent access to areas at risk of flooding after the Hermit’s Peak – Calf Canyon Fire.
Three people from west Texas were vacationing at a family cabin in northern New Mexico in July of 2022 when seasonal monsoon storms hit the burn scar near Tecolote Creek. The resulting flash flood swept the three people to their deaths.
The lawsuit also contends that the USFS failed to warn the victims about the dangers of the wildfire and of potential flooding in the area. Neither the USFS nor the USDA has formally responded to the lawsuit, which states that the USDA did not provide a settlement offer or a denial of the claims that were initially filed in the case earlier this year.
The escaped fire burned more than 341,000 acres between early April and late June in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and was the largest of the record-breaking New Mexico fire season; it was in fact the largest of 2022 in the lower 48 states. It burned over 900 structures, including several hundred homes, and threatened more than 12,000 other structures in the area. A smoldering prescribed fire project rekindled and escaped control, merging with another prescribed burn that had also escaped. The combined fires burned for months.
Congress allotted nearly $4 billion to compensate victims, and FEMA has paid over $101 million so far. Many families, though, complain that the federal government is not acknowledging the extent of the damage or the emotional toll the fire has taken, according to a Denver7 report.
FEMA has paid out just 2 percent of the fund designated to help wildfire victims rebuild. Some can’t wait much longer, and Source NM reported last month that many survivors are in limbo as they await compensation for the fire.
The prescribed fire was originally planned to reduce the risk of wildfire. The first small spot fire occurred at 1:35 and was controlled. At 2:26 another quarter-acre spot fire was caught.
Radio communication with some of the personnel was discovered to be a problem. It was later found that Bravo Holding was using a separate “crew net” and was not monitoring the planned frequency.
Ignition stopped a couple of times as spot fires were suppressed, but by about 4 p.m. when the RH dropped to 10 percent there were at least a dozen spots. Shortly thereafter the burn boss requested contingency resources and all resources were pulled off the fire. At 4:25 a dispatcher reported that the contingency resources were actually in Taos, New Mexico, 70 miles away, at a training exercise.
About 4 hours after ignition began, a dispatcher told the agency administrator that the burn boss and FMO recommended it be declared a wildfire; the administrator made the wildfire declaration and the Las Dispensas burn officially became the Hermits Peak Fire.
An 80-page report (4.7Mb PDF) by the USFS later concluded that management of the prescribed fire generally followed the approved prescribed fire plan for most — but not all — of the parameters. The people on the ground thought they were within (or close to) the prescription limits, but fuel moistures were lower than they realized and the increased heavy fuel loading after fireline prep also contributed to increased risk of escape.
FROM THE REPORT: “We ask them to make up ground on long-needed and far-behind proactive restoration work while barely allowing time to recover from a previously taxing wildland fire response and preparing to respond yet again. We ask them to restore fire process to ecosystems that have evolved to burn, but many of which are now primed for extreme fire behavior due to our own decisions to exclude or suppress fire in these areas.”