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The U.S. Forest Service Accepts Fault for New Mexico Wildfire

The agency inadvertently started a wildfire last year that burned more than 60 square miles after a prescribed burn went wrong. It was the third prescribed burn that went awry last year.

The U.S. Forest Service sparked a wildfire last year that scorched more than 60 square miles and nearly reached the city of Los Alamos, N.M., and the national security laboratory, according to its own internal investigation.

The Cerro Pelado fire was a so-called holdover fire that smoldered secretly under the snow during winter, the forest service said, then burst into flame during a dry, drought-ridden spring.

“Despite being covered by wet snow, this holdover fire remained dormant for considerable time with no visible sign of smoke or heat,” Southwestern Regional Forester Michiko Martin said in a statement accompanying the 230-page report released Tuesday.

The forest service report described how the debris pile fueling the Pino West Piles Prescribed Fire turned into an inferno that destroyed 10 structures, temporarily closed down Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, and had residents evacuating, packing or poised to flee.

The cause was listed as unknown for more than a year, as investigators initially said the origin was inconclusive.

Firefighters in the Southwestern Region have since begun monitoring pile burns with heat-detecting handheld thermal devices and drones, Martin said, adding that the agency will also conduct an exhaustive internal review to “determine the lessons learned and actions we can take” to prevent future such incidents.

It was the third prescribed burn gone rogue in the Santa Fe National Forest last year, after two others merged to create the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

The Calf Canyon Fire and Hermits Peak Fire, both products of out-of-control attempts to prevent massive fires, together destroyed at least 500 homes and torched 341,000 acres, or 532 square miles.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other elected officials were incensed at the latest revelation.

“I am — again — outraged over the U.S. Forest Service’s negligence that caused this destruction,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “While climate change and extreme drought continue to plague the Southwest, the Forest Service must abandon their business-as-usual approach to prescribed burns and forest management in our state.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich called it “frustrating and deeply concerning to learn now that the Cerro Pelado Fire was also caused by an escaped prescribed fire” and questioned why it took a year to determine the cause.

©2023 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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