Santa Fe National Forest gets new acting Supervisor

While the Forest Supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest, Debbie Cress, is temporarily assigned to the acting Deputy Chief of Staff position for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, James Duran will serve as acting Supervisor for the next four months. This is occurring while the largest fire in the recorded history of New Mexico, the Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fire, is still not officially contained.

From the Associated Press:

Some have questioned the timing given that the wildfire has yet to be declared contained and recovery work has just begun.Forest officials have dismissed criticism, saying the opportunity for Cress to work at headquarters initially came up in January and was the culmination of her work over the past year with the agency’s leadership.

Cress acknowledged in a statement Friday that it was difficult timing as her home state deals with the aftermath of the massive wildfire.

Debbie Cress
Debbie Cress. USFS photo.

The 341,735-acre fire is the result of two prescribed fires on the Santa Fe National Forest that escaped control. One was  a broadcast burn that crossed control lines during a strong wind. The other originated from slash piles that were ignited in late January that continued burning for months. In mid-April one or more of the piles became very active and began spreading and merged with the other escaped fire on April 22.

In 2018 another pile burning project on the Santa Fe escaped months after it was ignited and had to be converted to a wildfire. A Facilitated Learning Analysis found that “communication” and “prescribed fire preparation and risk” were common themes.

Ms. Cress began as the Forest Supervisor in April of 2021. Three months before, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported, she had transferred from a District Ranger position in Arizona to be the Deputy Forest Supervisor on the Santa Fe National Forest.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim and Gerald.

Report released for the prescribed fire that led to the Hermits Peak Fire

Northern New Mexico

Las Dispensas prescribed fire, 1:07 p.m. MDT April 6, 2022
Las Dispensas prescribed fire, 1:07 p.m. MDT April 6, 2022. USFS photo.

An 80-page report (4.7Mb) released by the U.S. Forest Service concluded that the management of the prescribed fire that escaped and merged with another escaped prescribed fire to become the largest wildfire in the recorded history of New Mexico, generally followed the approved prescribed fire plan for most but not all of the parameters. The people on the ground felt they were close to or within the prescription limits but fuel moistures were lower than realized and increased heavy fuel loading after fireline preparation contributed to increasing the risk of fire escape.

The prescribed fire on the Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico east of the city of Santa Fe was one of the units within the Gallinas Prescribed Fire Project Area. The first burning activity in early October of 2017, was the ignition of piles of debris left after forest thinning projects. Less than expected snow allowed the fire to spread away from the piles over the next three months. In late December they began to suppress the fire, and on January 18, 2018 it was converted to a wildfire. A Facilitated Learning Analysis found that“communication” and “prescribed fire preparation and risk” were two common themes.

In a continuation of that large multi-unit project, on April 6, 2022 at 11:34 a.m. firefighters ignited the test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire, expected to be 150 acres. At 12:34 p.m. the test was considered successful and the project commenced.

Test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire April 6, 2022
Test fire on the Las Dispensas prescribed fire April 6, 2022. USFS photo.

The first small spot fire occurred at 1:35, which was controlled. At 2:26 a 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 were not monitoring the planned frequency.

Ignition stopped a couple of times as spot fires were suppressed, but by about 4 p.m. when the relative humidity dropped to 10 percent there were at least a dozen spots. At 4:06 the Burn boss requested contingency resources and at 4:15 as groups of trees began torching all resources were pulled off the fire due to the increasing fire intensity. At 4:25 Dispatch reported that the contingency resources were physically located in Taos, New Mexico at the Fire Summit (an annual training exercise). Taos is approximately 70 miles from the prescribed fire.

At 4:38 Dispatch advised the Agency Administrator that the Burn Boss and the Fire Management Officer recommend it be declared a wildfire — about four hours after the primary ignition began. The Agency Administrator made the wildfire declaration and at 4:50 the incident was named the Hermits Peak wildfire.

Hermits Peak Fire
Hermits Peak Fire, April 8, 2022. USFS photo.

On April 22 the Hermits Peak Fire merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, another escaped prescribed fire on the Santa Fe National Forest. As of June 22 the blaze has burned more than 341,000 acres.


The prescription for broadcast burning required that the relative humidity be between 12 and 60 percent. The spot weather forecast issued by the National Weather Service at 8:53 a.m. on April 6 predicted the minimum RH would be between 9 and 13 percent, west winds 10 to 15 mph gusting to 25, and 54 to 58 degrees.

During the project on April 6 weather conditions were measured by a lookout once an hour using a hand-held Kestrel instrument. With that device the readings appeared to be within the prescription parameters except for the observations at 4 p.m. when it showed the RH had dropped to 10 percent.

From the report:

“Regarding temperature (dry bulb and wet bulb) and relative humidity, the observations recorded by the lookout showed a cooler and more moist bias when compared with other observations of weather and fire behavior on the site. Specifically, relative humidity readings taken from the Kestrel differed from what the relative humidity values should have been if calculated using the National Wildfire Coordinating Group standard tables for that elevation and the dry bulb and wet bulb observations. The relative humidity values recorded from the Kestrel provided values that are nearly 10 percent higher than those calculated.” 

The recalculated RH at 4 p.m. was actually 6 percent, not 10 as shown on the Kestrel. One of the Firing Bosses also took readings and used the NWCG standard tables, which were similar to the recalculated values from the lookout’s Kestrel.

To summarize the weather, the forecast predicted the RH to be 9 to 13 percent, possibly below the prescribed 12 percent minimum, but it actually dropped as low as 6 percent, well below the prescription.


Fine and heavy fuel loading increased in the years after the prescribed fire plan was developed, resulting from a combination of canopy opening from thinning (fine fuels) and fireline preparation (heavy fuels). This contributed to high fire intensity, torching, prolific spotting, and resistance to control.

The foliar fuel moistures were low and contributed to the transition from surface to crown fire. Fuel moisture samples taken from March 16 to April 3 showed a significant downward trend that contributed to the transition from surface to crown fire and increased spotting potential. Foliar moistures were listed to be sampled in the prescribed fire plan but were not part of the prescription.

The report’s conclusions, findings, and lessons learned 

  • There was no nearby Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) in working order representative of conditions at the burn site. If available, the data could have improved situational awareness.
  • A thinning project in the burn area opened the canopy in some areas, allowing more sunlight which led to lower fuel moistures. Heavy ground fuels resulting from the construction of fireline for the burn project added to the fuel loading. This contributed to higher fire intensities, torching, spotting, and higher resistance-to-control.
  • Low live fuel moistures facilitated the transition from surface fire to torching and spotting outside the unit boundaries.
  • The prescribed fire plan mentioned that the Energy Release Component (ERC) which is an indication of the potential intensity of a fire, was to be monitored, but did not specify how the element would be used. On the date of the prescribed fire it was 37, far above average for the date which was 23. The highest ever recorded on that date was 41. Higher numbers indicate greater fire intensity.
  • There was an underestimation of the minimum holding and contingency resources needed. After numerous spot fires occurred, the Burn Boss requested the contingency resources, but they were 70 miles away.
  • A clear recognition and acknowledgment of long-term drought and climate factors versus short-term weather events would have led toward better situational awareness of the fire environment and could have resulted in more favorable outcomes.
  • The test fire was initiated in an area of the unit that was not representative of the rest of the unit. On several occasions, both before the burn was ignited and after the test fire was considered and accepted, some personnel felt that the dry conditions would result in difficult burning conditions and an increase in risk, but they accepted the assignment.
  • Consider requiring overhead, such as Firing Boss, Holding Boss and other staffed positions, to document support of the agreement with the Test Fire or the Go/No-Go decision.
  • Administrative boundaries limited the selection of potential control lines. The prescribed fire unit designation followed boundary lines from private property and other land designations, such as wilderness, and not necessarily advantageous fuels changes or topography.
  • Use the existing authority in the “Wyden Amendment” that allows managers of federal lands to spend funds to conduct treatments on adjacent non-federal lands to improve the viability of, and otherwise benefit, fish, wildlife, and other biotic resources.
  • District fire employees perceived pressure to “accomplish the mission,” which may have led to taking greater risk.
  • Records show the Prescribed Fire Burn Boss Type 2 (RXB2) performed as a fully qualified RXB2 at least 12 times since 2015.
  • Invest in education opportunities for continued learning in science and technology specific to fire behavior and fire environment. Consider workshops tailored for prescribed fire practitioners that address today’s challenges related to environmental and social conditions.
  • Prescribed fire programs and projects should invest in staffing, training, planning and other supporting resources commensurate with the priority and complexity of prescribed fire projects.
  • Consider Incident Management Teams when implementing complex prescribed fire projects.
  • Increase support for existing Burn Bosses by activating Planning Section functions when complexity warrants the additional capacity.
  • Establish an interagency training facility, such as the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center, that would be located in the Western U.S. and focus on the additional complexities involved with western fuel treatments.
  • Learn from indigenous communities about cultural land management practices.
  • Invest in education opportunities for continued learning in science and technology specific to fire behavior and fire environment. Consider workshops tailored for prescribed fire practitioners that address today’s challenges related to environmental and social conditions.

And this 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.

“To accomplish this level and frequency of prescribed fire on the landscape, we must ensure that practitioners have access to the best science, technology and tools, and that they are confident and practiced in their usage. We need an approach to planning and implementing prescribed fire that’s as robust as our Incident Management Teams’ response to wildfire.”

The 10-year plan

The 10-year plan released in January by the Forest Service for prescribed fire and other fuel projects calls for tripling the number of acres treated on National Forest System Lands in the West and other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands in the West, increasing from about 2.5 million acres a year to 7.5 million.

Our take

The report said, “District fire employees perceived pressure to accomplish the mission, which may have led to taking greater risk.”

If they feel pressure now, how will they feel when the number of acres treated needs to increase substantially? Will there be a corresponding escalation in Burn Bosses, Holding Bosses, full time prescribed fire planners, NEPA compliance capacity, crews, and weather windows?

Hermits Peak - Calf Canyon Fire, June 14, 2022
Hermits Peak – Calf Canyon Fire, June 14, 2022. USFS.

Shortage of radio technicians may have compromised safety on Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire

More than 1,000 fire personnel were affected by inadequate communication with the Incident Command Post

technician sets up a portable radio repeater
File photo. A Radio Technician sets up a portable radio repeater on the Sprague Fire in Glacier National Park in Montana, September 16, 2017. NIFC photo.

The difficulties in hiring and retaining wildland firefighters which has resulted in one-third of the Forest Service firefighter positions in California being unfilled, may not be restricted to just those who directly battle the flames. The old axiom, “amateurs think strategy, generals think logistics,” does not only apply to the military. If firefighters can’t be supplied with food, water, vehicle maintenance, hose, tools, fuel, and communications they will not be successful in a long campaign.

The concept of firefighters ensuring that before they engage, they must have adequate Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes, and Safety zones (LCES) was developed by Paul Gleason. It is shorthand for combining a list of Standard Orders fire personnel must follow to protect themselves from fireline hazards such as being entrapped in the fire. According to a report on SAFENET, there was a four-day period from May 15 until May 19 when the Communications leg of LCES was not covered adequately on the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in Northern New Mexico.

The National Situation report for May 15 shows that in the United States that day there were 10 large uncontained fires, with all of the fires in the country being staffed by a total of 4,708 personnel. When the fire season nears its peak this summer there could be five times that many people assigned to fires. But in the middle of May there was a shortage of radio technicians and radio operators which made it impossible to set up an adequate radio communications system when it was needed on the north zone of the fire following a reorganization.

I was told by mentors as I came up through the ranks that firefighting is not an emergency — not to firefighters. It’s what we do. So when the situation gets suddenly more complex and decisions must be made and executed quickly, think calmly, act decisively, and communicate clearly. At least one of these suddenly complex situations occurred on the fire. A person needed medical treatment and extraction by air. It is referred to in the SAFENET as an incident within an incident. They are usually managed separately by an offshoot organization, and they always require efficient, robust, dependable, instant communication.

The text below is taken word for word from the SAFENET. The only change we made was to translate the acronyms.


When Southwest Team 1 took command of the North Zone of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire communications were unable to be linked with Incident Command Post (ICP). The zoning of the incident required the current radio communications system to be split. The North Zone remained on the current system with the South Zone moving to their own system. During this transition there were no radio techs to switch the repeater link for the North Zone and install the repeater to cover ICP. For a duration of 4 days, the link with communications at the ICP was ineffective. This was highlighted on 5/17 with a red medical that required extraction by air. During the Incident Within an Incident (IWI) communication were not able to function from ICP to the field and back. As the fire progressed, the repeater that was required for ICP was also needed to cover field personnel. Approximately, 300 personnel in the field had limited communications, with the only link established through a human repeater. During high fire behavior periods, several resources were forced to abandon tactics and leave the line because communications could not be established. The contributing factor, is the lack of radio techs available nationally. Orders were placed for radio techs days before transition and after transition. Orders for one week were returned unable to fill (UTF). Furthermore, radio operators were also unavailable. Orders were also placed for CAT personnel which was also UTF. The lack of communications personnel resulted in decrease support for the field and inability to coordinate IWI response and transport through ICP and the communications unit. About 1,200 firefighters were affected by the lack of communications with ICP.

The lack of communication personnel is limiting the “C” in “Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones” (LCES) and needs to be resolved at the national level. The trend of unable to fill communications personnel has progressively gotten worse over the last few years and will most likely result in incidents without communications in the future.

Immediate Action Taken

Field personnel had communications on the most fireline through the existing repeater system. Approximately, 25% of fireline personnel had no communications coverage which was unsatisfactorily resolved with a human repeater during the 4 days without a radio tech. Field Operations was utilized to coordinate response and transport for IWIs placing their self in a location with cell service and radio service. A radio tech was sent from the South Zone once their system was installed and working. That individual then moved to the North Zone on Day 4 to begin configuring the North Zone communication system. On 5/20, 4 days after transition, the North Zone communication system was operating providing coverage for ICP and the incident.

Other mitigations for correcting the problem took considerable time to no avail and included contacting commercial vendors, national guard and state compact agreements. The solutions did not pan out. Currently, land management agency fire organizations have no capacity for implementing a communications system on an incident without reliance on personnel outside of the fire organization.

Three firefighters injured by water drop from helicopter

Occurred on the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico

Updated at 5:25 p.m. PDT June 7, 2022

A “72-hour preliminary report” dated June 6, 2022 shed a little additional light on the May 29 incident in which three firefighters were injured when struck by water dropped from a helicopter on the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico.

It adds that the hotshot crew was not injured directly by the water, but were knocked onto boulders by the force of the drop.

They were hit by the water “while they were crossing a steep rocky piece of ground, consisting of 2 to 3 foot diameter boulders. Three crewmembers were injured by falling in the rocks as a result of being impacted by the water drop” from a Type 1 helicopter.

The most seriously injured firefighter, who had multiple surgeries to repair facial fractures and a broken kneecap, was released from the hospital over the weekend and will be traveling home over the next several days, accompanied by family members and his crew supervisor.

A Facilitative Learning Analysis will be conducted “to share learning from unintended outcomes and to reduce the probability of future occurrences of similar events.”

3:08 p.m. PDT June 1, 2022

helicopter drop spot fire
File photo of a helicopter dropping water in support of a hand crew that was attacking a spot fire at the Wildomar Fire in Southern California at 4:24 p.m. October 26, 2017. Screen grab from KTLA live video.

Three firefighters were injured, one seriously, May 29, 2022 while working on the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire in Northern New Mexico.

According to a 24-hour preliminary report dated today June 1, the Bureau of Land Management Vale Interagency Hotshot Crew was holding a section of fire line when a large Type 1 helicopter “missed the identified drop area” while attempting to drop water on the fire edge. The last of the load landed on several crew members, three of which  were transported to a hospital in Santa Fe, NM, two by ground vehicle and the third by an agency helicopter.

One of them with severe injuries was later transferred to a hospital in Albuquerque where he has received multiple surgeries, one to repair skull fractures to the face, and the other to repair a broken knee cap. The employee is still in the hospital, accompanied by family and his crew supervisor. 

The other two firefighters received injuries described as minor; they were treated and released.

Other than the specifications of the helicopter qualifying it as a Type 1 ship, no other description was given in the report. Type 1 helicopters can carry between 700 and 3,000 gallons, ranging from the 700-gallon K-MAX to a 3,000-gallon Chinook.

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico started from two separate escaped prescribed fires which merged into one. It has burned more than 315,000 acres 20 to 47 miles east and northeast of Santa Fe.

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

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.

The four active large fires in New Mexico have burned nearly half a million acres

1:38 p.m. MDT May 20, 2022

Map Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire 3:49 a.m. MDT May 20, 2022
Map of the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire. The bright red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:49 a.m. MDT May 20, 2022.

The four largest active wildfires in New Mexico all continued to grow Thursday and have burned a total of more than 476,000 acres. Red Flag Warnings are in effect Friday for winds gusting from 30 to 40 mph with single digit humidity.

The 303,701-acre Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire northwest of Las Vegas was subject to single digit humidity and strong winds Thursday afternoon, 10 to 20 mph with 30 to 40 mph gusts out of the west. Since the east side is somewhat secure most of the additional spread was limited to the west side, which experienced in some areas fire behavior described as “extreme, crowning, group torching, and spotting.”

Smoke over the Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Smoke over the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire May 18, 2022 by pilot Travis Graham.

The Black Fire 28 miles west-northwest of Truth or Consequences consumed more vegetation on the northwest, northeast, east, and southeast sides. Fire officials said in some places it spread for three miles, growing on the southeast side to within one or two miles of Hermosa. It has burned 104,969 acres.

Map Black Fire 3:49 a.m. MDT May 20, 2022
Map of the Black Fire. The bright red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:49 a.m. MDT May 20, 2022.

Most of the spread of the 21,687-acre Bear Trap Fire 34 miles southwest of Socorro was on the south side Thursday. Hand crews are prepping and conducting tactical burning operations, some of which may be conducted by aerial ignition. Limited movement to the east off the San Mateo crest is expected due to non-continuous fuels in several recent fire scars.

Map Bear Trap Fire 3:49 a.m. MDT May 20, 2022
Map of the Bear Trap Fire. The bright red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:49 a.m. MDT May 20, 2022.

The 45,605-acre Cerro Pelado Fire six miles southwest of Los Alamos has been relatively quiet for several days.