US Forest Service pauses all prescribed fire operations

A 90-day review of practices is being conducted

Morning briefing on the Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Morning briefing May 8, 2022 on the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire as firefighters break out into Divisions. The Hermits Peak Fire started from an escaped prescribed fire on April 6, 2022. USFS photo.

The US Forest Service announced May 20 in a press release that a “pause” is in effect for all prescribed fire operations on National Forest System lands. The reason given for the pause is “because of the current extreme wildfire risk conditions in the field…while we conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools, and practices ahead of planned operations this fall,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in the statement released late Friday afternoon.

The public statement from Chief Moore does not actually say in clear text why the review is being conducted, but the unmentioned elephant in the press release is the hundreds of thousands of acres burning and the weeks-long evacuation orders in New Mexico, some of it attributed to an escaped prescribed fire. However in an email sent to FS employees, the Chief wrote, “I’m sure you all have seen the stories in the news about recent prescribed burn escapes. These, as well as isolated incidents on other national forests in recent years, have made it imperative that we pause to review our processes. That’s why I am temporarily halting all prescribed burns on National Forest System lands and creating a review team consisting of representatives from the wildland fire and research community.”

At least two prescribed fires escaped in New Mexico in April. The Hermits Peak Fire escaped from the Las Dispensas prescribed fire northwest of Las Vegas on April 6. On April 22 it merged with the Calf Canyon Fire which was reported April 19 in the general area where another prescribed fire was ignited about three months earlier. Now a month after the Calf Canyon Fire was reported the FS is saying its cause is still under investigation.

The combined Hermits Peak / Calf Canyon Fire is still spreading. It has burned more than 303,000 acres and destroyed 347 homes and 287 other structures. Another 16,316 structures are threatened and evacuations are still in effect. An estimated $95 million has been spent so far on suppression of the fire.

On April 7 a prescribed fire being conducted by the Bureau of Land Management about 10 miles southeast of Roswell, NM escaped and burned 1,900 acres.

On the Dixie National Forest in Utah the Left Fork Fire was reported May 9. On May 10 the Forest Service said it ignited from material still burning from a prescribed fire conducted April 7, 2022.  On May 11, 12, and 13 the daily updates on the wildfire posted by the Dixie National Forest stated it was “human caused.” The escaped fire burned 97 acres.

Left Fork Fire escaped prescribed fire
Firefighters construct fireline on the Left Fork Fire in Utah which was caused by an escaped prescribed fire. Posted by the Dixie NF, May 12, 2022. Photo by Mervin Garcia, Engine 322.

On May 16 the Uncompahgre & Gunnison National Forests ignited the Simms Mesa prescribed fire, expected to treat 200 acres about 11 miles south of Montrose, Colorado. On May 19 a wildfire was reported in the area which was was given the name “Simms Fire”. Officially the cause is under investigation, but the Forest Service on May 19 wrote about the fire on Facebook, “Earlier in the week a prescribed burn was conducted in the vicinity which was monitored daily. The cause of the fire is under investigation.” Fire officials report that at least one home has been destroyed. Evacuations are in effect and Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team 1 has been mobilized. Friday morning it had burned 371 acres.

“In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” the statement from Chief Moore said. “In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires. The review I am announcing today will task representatives from across the wildland fire and research community with conducting the national review and evaluating the prescribed fire program, from the best available science to on-the-ground implementation. Lessons learned and any resulting program improvements will be in place prior to resuming prescribed burning.”

The FS safely conducts about 4,500 prescribed fire projects each year on average, treating more than 1.4 million acres. Since most prescribed fires are conducted between September and May, the Forest Service expects the pause will have “minimal impact” on their goal of increasing fuels treatments by up to four times the current levels in the West, including using prescribed burning as well as mechanical and other treatments.

Issuing a press release late on a Friday afternoon at the end of the work week is a tactic sometimes chosen in hopes that the timing of the unfavorable information will minimize its negative impact.

Inciweb currently lists nine prescribed fire projects on Forest Service lands in various stages of planning or execution; there are likely more, since not all are entered at the website.

Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak fire
Firefighters attempt to hold the Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak Fire at Highway 434, May 10, 2022. Inciweb.

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.

Updates on four large wildfires in New Mexico

Updated at 5:28 p.m. MDT May 18, 2022

Red Flag Warning for the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire
Red Flag Warning for the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire, May 19-20, 2022. NWS.

The National Weather Service has taken the unusual step of issuing a Red Flag Warning one and two days in advance for the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire 21 miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The prediction is for winds gusting from the west and southwest at more than 30 mph with single digit relative humidity. Similar conditions will exist at least on Thursday for the area of the Black and Bear Trap Fires in southwest New Mexico.


Updated 12:10 p.m. MDT May 18, 2022

Map Black Fire 914 p.m. MDT May 18, 2022
Map of the Black Fire. The bright red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:48 a.m. May 18. The red line is the perimeter at 9:14 p.m. May 17. The white line is the perimeter about 48 hours before.

On Wednesday the northern half of New Mexico is under a Red Flag Warning. Isolated dry thunderstorms are predicted for portions of New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado.

The Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire 21 miles east of Santa Fe, NM was active on the west side Tuesday, but there was very little significant activity on the east side between Mora and Las Vegas.

The Cerro Pelado Fire 25 miles west of Santa Fe was relatively quiet Tuesday. There has been no major spread for several days and a satellite was only able to detect one large heat source early Wednesday morning.

Black Fire, May 16, 2022
Black Fire, May 16, 2022. IMT photo.

The Black Fire (see map above) 28 miles west-northwest of Truth or Consequences made another large run to the east Tuesday adding another 21,000 acres to bring the total up to 77,360. Fuel treatments and wildfires that have occurred over the last 20 years may slow any major spread to the north, west, and south, but the NIFC database shows no significant history of fire east of the incident.

Map Bear Trap Fire 943 p.m. MDT May 17, 2022
Map of the Bear Trap Fire. The bright red dots represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:48 a.m. May 18. The red line is the perimeter at 9:43 p.m. May 17. The white line is the perimeter about 24 hours before.

Another fire in southwest New Mexico, the Bear Trap Fire, is 34 miles southwest of Socorro. It spread southwest on Tuesday and was mapped Tuesday night at 15,215 acres. The fire is surrounded by fuel treatments and prescribed natural fires on all sides except for the southwest — which is where the most of the spread has occurred during the last couple of days.

Bear Trap Fire
South side of the Bear Trap Fire, May 16. IMT photo.

5:10 p.m. MDT May 17, 2022

map Cerro Pelado and Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fires
Map showing the location of the Cerro Pelado and Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fires, the evening of May 16, 2022.

High temperatures and very low humidity on Tuesday kept most of the large wildfires in New Mexico very active.

Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire

The Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire 21 miles east of Santa Fe has become the largest fire in the recorded history of New Mexico. At 299,565 acres it has eclipsed the previous record set by the 297,845-acre Whitewater and Baldy Fires when they burned together in May of 2012 in Southwest New Mexico. On Tuesday it was again putting up a large smoke column while a 5 to 20 mph wind gusted out of of the northwest, west, and southwest at 25 mph. The humidity dropped to 10 percent in the afternoon.

Cerro Pelado Fire

On Monday most of the fire activity on the 45,605-acre Cerro Pelado Fire was on the northwest and southeast sides. On Tuesday the fire 25 miles west of Santa Fe was putting up much less smoke than the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire, judging from the Satellite photo below taken at 3:56 p.m.

Continue reading “Updates on four large wildfires in New Mexico”

Black Fire grows rapidly north of Silver City, NM

Updated at 4:18 p.m. MDT May 16, 2022

Black Fire in New Mexico
Black Fire in New Mexico, as seen from the USFS Lead Plane. Possibly May 16, 2022.

The Black Fire 31 miles north-northeast of Silver City, New Mexico is very active Monday afternoon, as seen in these photos.

Smoke plume from Black Fire
Smoke plume from Black Fire at 3:51 p.m. MDT May 16, 2022. NOAA satellite image.

 


10:22 a.m. MDT May 16, 2022

Black Fire
Black Fire. Photo from a firefighting aircraft, May 15, 2022.

The Black Fire 31 miles north-northeast of Silver City, New Mexico made an impressive run to the east Sunday. Fire officials said that morning it was 1,174 acres; when it was mapped by an aircraft that night at 9:04 it had grown to 18,762 acres and was 11 miles long. Satellite data at 3:26 Monday morning indicated that it had continued to spread vigorously to the east through the night.

It is burning in timber and tall grass in the Gila National Forest 34 miles west of Interstate 25 and Truth or Consequences.

Black Fire map at 9:04 p.m. May 15, 2022
Black Fire map at 9:04 p.m. May 15, 2022. The fire continued moving east after it was mapped.

The rapid growth of the fire Sunday was due to dry fuels, relative humidity that dropped to 2 percent, and 10 mph winds gusting to 22 out of the west-southwest. The data was recorded at the Gila Center weather station.

The weather forecast for Monday near the fire at 6,800 feet calls for 18 mph winds gusting out of the southwest at 28 mph, 86 degrees, and 4 percent relative humidity —  conditions that could lead to additional spread to the northeast.

Black Fire map at 9:04 p.m. May 15, 2022
Black Fire map at 9:04 p.m. May 15, 2022. The fire continued moving east-northeast after it was mapped.

Update: Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire May 15

9:35 a.m. MDT May 15, 2022

Map Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire 343 a.m. May 15, 2022
Map of the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire. The bright red areas represent heat detected by a satellite at 3:43 a.m. May 15, 2022.

The spread of the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire in Northern New Mexico has slowed in recent days compared to the rapid spread seen early last week during very strong winds and ultra low humidity.

The fire was mapped Saturday evening at 288,942 acres. Most of the activity at that time was on the west flanks, and on the north side near Holman, Chacon, Cleveland, and Mora. Crews are working to keep it away from structures and are putting in additional firelines. The perimeter on the east side between Las Vegas and La Cueva has been secure for several days.

Three Incident Management Teams are assigned. The Southwest Incident Management Team 3 (SWIMT3) has assumed command of the southern half of the fire. The SWIMT 1 took management of the northern half, and the California IMT 2 will work to the north on a bigger-picture strategic plan for control, identifying additional locations where containment lines may be constructed.

The weather forecast for Sunday is west to southwest winds 15 to 20 mph, with gusts to 25 on the north and central zones. Temperatures will range from the upper 60’s to mid-80’s depending on the elevation, with a minimum relative humidity 7 to 11 percent. Even though the wind speeds are not extreme the fire will remain active, with critically dry fuels and near-record high temperatures.

Firefighters on the Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire
Firefighters on the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire, near Highway 434, posted by Santa Fe National Forest May 12, 2022.

Forest Service burned hundreds of acres of piles in the general area where the Calf Canyon Fire started

There is very little fire history out in front of the Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire in Northern New Mexico

9:09 p.m. MDT May 13, 2022

About three months before the Calf Canyon Fire was reported April 19, 2022, employees of the Santa Fe National Forest ignited hundreds of acres of debris piles which were created during fuels treatment projects. The piles were “approximately 17 miles west of Las Vegas,” according to a notice posted at the New Mexico Fire Information website on January 26, 2022. (See below) The name of the project was Gallinas Canyon wildland-urban interface (WUI) prescribed pile burn. In January prior to the notice crews had already completed 266 acres of the 374-acre unit and planned to continue burning more piles “as early as January 27.”

Pile burning Calf Canyon Santa Fe National Forest escaped fire
Screenshot from the New Mexico Fire Information website posted January 26, 2022. Accessed May 13, 2022.

Fires are usually named after a geographical feature near the point of origin. Calf Canyon Road intersects with Forest Road 263 which is in Gallinas Canyon.

On September 27, 2012 a 300-acre hazardous fuels reduction mechanical thinning project was finished just north of Calf Canyon Road, which likely left hundreds of piles to burn later.

This project and Calf Canyon Road are broadly within the general area where the Calf Canyon Fire started. There have also been other fuels treatment projects in that area over the last 10 years.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fires, including the most recent, click here

The US Forest Service has already identified an escaped prescribed fire as the cause of the Hermits Peak Fire, but lists the cause of the Calf Canyon Fire as under investigation.

Wildfires, prescribed fires, and pile burns are known to have smoldered for months, sometimes under snow and through an entire winter, before being discovered months later when smoke becomes visible. The burn piles were at approximately 8,000 feet, so the snow reported in the notice may have kept the vegetation cold and wet for a couple of months if the pile burning was completed in February. We are not saying that is what caused the Calf Canyon Fire, but investigators have no doubt evaluated that possibility and ruled it in or out.

Three days after the Calf Canyon Fire was reported strong winds and low humidities combined to caused it to merge with the Hermits Peak Fire and spread 10 miles to the northeast through dry vegetation in a 24-hour period.

What is next for the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire?

Fire history map, Calf Canyon - Hermits Peak Fire May 12, 2022
Fire history map, Calf Canyon – Hermits Peak Fire May 12, 2022.

While the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire has been churning through more than 270,000 acres on its march to the north, at least 90 percent of those acres have burned in areas with no recorded history of previous fires in the national database, going back decades. If that spread to the north and north-northeast continues there is limited significant fire scars in the records out ahead that will slow the fire. (Update May 14, 2022: The NIFC database does not include two fires north of the Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire; the 2020 Luna Fire (10,100 acres) and the 2018 Sardinas Canyon Fire (2,300 acres), according to the link provided in a comment by SE.)

The overall length of the fire is 45 miles as of Thursday night May 12. From the origins they ran north for 32 miles, and south for 13.

There are also no large completed fuel treatment projects in the national database north of the fire that could serve as barriers, except for several near US Highway 64 west of Angel Fire near Valle Escondido 14 miles away. But there are other fuels treatment projects at what is now the southeast corner of the fire in the Barillas Peak area. It has just started to burn into the 2,534-acre “Wildfire Commissary 2015” fire use fire, but it is possible that without too much trouble it could work its way around it, another smaller fire use incident, and a 600-acre prescribed fire conducted in 2004.

At the end of the day on May 12 the north end of the fire was 14 miles from US 64, 19 miles from Taos, 11 miles from the Cooks Peak Fire, and 25 miles from the Philmont Scout Ranch.