Forest Service responsible for the Dog Head Fire

UPDATED JUNE 6, 2016

The Dog Head Fire started as part of the Forest Service’s fuel reduction and fire prevention management.

Pointing to the Isleta Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project, a press release by the Forest Service July 1 said, “The agency has no plans to pursue criminal prosecution since there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.” The release did not say against whom such prosecution would be brought.

As of July 4, that fire was 98 percent contained, said Donna Nemeth, public information officer for the Forest Service. It burned 18,000 acres after starting June 14 about a mile from Fourth of July Campground in the Cibola National Forest—mostly in the space of a few days—before being brought under control by some 1,000 firefighting personnel, as many people near Chilili, Tajique and the South 14 area evacuated themselves and animals.

The Forest Service, Isleta Pueblo and the Chilili Land Grant have a cooperative agreement dating back a few years for a project to “include thinning and burning to reduce the potential of uncharacteristic wildfires and to protect community, cultural, and natural resources at a landscape scale” on 2,000 acres of Isleta Pueblo, 620 acres in the Chilili Land Grant, 2,100 acres in the Sandia Ranger District and 5,700 acres in the Mountainair Ranger District.

The view of the burn scar from the Dog Head Fire over Chilili July 2. Photo by Leota Harriman.

The view of the burn scar from the Dog Head Fire over Chilili July 2. Photo by Leota Harriman.

That information comes from a document dated July 25, 2012 soliciting comments for the project found on the Cibola National Forest’s website—the only documentation for the collaborative project The Independent was able to find before going to press this week.

“The work was being done pursuant to an agreement with the Forest Service,” said attorney Dave Meilke, a spokesman for Isleta Pueblo. Meilke said the project had “good results until a couple of weeks ago.” He added, “The Forest Service investigation is ongoing and the Pueblo is cooperating with that investigation.”

Gov. E. Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo issued a statement July 1 expressing sympathy for those who lost homes or property. “As you have heard from the Forest Service, the fire may have accidentally resulted from a piece of equipment being operated by the Pueblo of Isleta forestry crew,” Torres’ statement said. “This preliminary conclusion is a distressing one for the Pueblo, because our forestry crew, in cooperation with the Forest Service and the Chilili Land Grant, have worked for years to make our shared environment healthier and to reduce the risk of fire.”

The statement explained how the equipment works: “In operation, the masticator moves across the forest floor and grinds the slash into a mulch. There is no fire hazard posed by normal operation of this machine, but in this case it may have struck a rock or some other solid object in the slash that sparked the blaze. The Pueblo will continue to cooperate fully with the the Forest Service’s investigation of the fire as we try to determine exactly what happened.”

While Isleta Pueblo’s governor said the Forest Service was investigating the cause of the fire, as of this writing, the Forest Service would not confirm that. “I don’t have that information,” Nemeth said Tuesday afternoon, adding that she would try to find out.

“Now that the facts have been gathered, we can verify that the Dog Head wildfire originated from a masticator which is a machine that shreds small trees to reduce the amount of hazardous fuels in the forest,” said a Forest Service press release July 1 on the Dog Head Fire Information page on Facebook.

Twelve single residences and 44 minor structures were destroyed by the fire, according to the Forest Service.

Asked why that work was being done during the height of the fire season, Nemeth answered, “I talked with our fire people about this. The conditions at that time in that area did not warrant fire restrictions.”

She said conditions can vary from day to day and location to location in the area. Fire risk is assessed through several metrics, including moisture in the fuel and relative humidity.

Asked if there was a water source on hand as crews worked on the project, Nemeth replied, “I don’t have that information.” She said she would try to find out. By the time The Independent went to press, Nemeth had not provided an answer.

Asked if there had been a water source nearby, Meilke said, “I don’t know. I’m not aware of any water source that was available.”

Asked how the masticator was being used or how it might start a fire, Nemeth said, “I don’t have a way to answer that question,” adding that the question is part of the ongoing investigation. The Forest Service will be issuing a report around the end of July, Nemeth said.

Another Fire

Last week, another fire started in the Manzanos, dubbed the Comanche Fire.

The Independent reported June 30 at edgewood.news that according to Forest Service spokeswoman Arlene Perea, that fire was “burning in heavy fuels” just southwest of Capilla Peak. At that time, Perea estimated the size of the fire as “an acre or an acre and a half.”

The Comanche Fire was started by lightning, Perea said in a later news release, and was burning in steep and rugged terrain. Single engine air tankers, heavy air tankers and helicopters were placed on that fire immediately, and within a day, Perea made another press release saying the Comanche Fire was kept small with air support until ground crews could reach it, with some 57 firefighters on hand at that time, and a size estimate of 1.2 acres.

By the afternoon of July 1, another press release from the Forest Service was titled, “Crews Get a Handle on the Comanche Fire.”

Rain and high humidity helped, the press release said. The next day all but one crew were released from the Comanche Fire, according to another news release from Perea.

Comparing the Responses

A meeting was held Friday in Chilili to release the cause of the Dog Head Fire to the public, and Meilke said that a frequent question there was why the Forest Service had not acted faster when the Dog Head Fire broke out.

Nemeth said Tuesday that the Forest Service “immediately dispatched resources to the fire when it was reported,” adding, “It’s quite a drive to get to the area. It’s not like driving to a house fire. It takes awhile.”

She said two engines were dispatched as soon as the fire was reported. “They also immediately requested aircraft and more support resources,” which she said were not in the immediate area.

Nemeth added later by email that the “closest available resources” were immediately dispatched to the Dog Head Fire when the smoke report came in: “A Battalion Chief and two Cibola NF engines responded within the first 30 minutes. Our Dispatch Center requested air support from the Southwest Coordination Center (SWCC). SWCC assigned the only air tanker in NM, which was in Roswell. All of the other air tankers were in AZ at that time because Regional fire activity was high with the Cedar and Wildcat Fires. Additional air tankers were diverted from the other fires to assist at the Dog Head.”

Nemeth also said that Fire Management Officer Kendall Wilson said conditions were not as hot, dry, or windy on the Comanche Fire.

“They took aggressive suppressive actions on both fires immediately,” Nemeth said. “I know that some people think that we did not take suppression actions immediately on the Dog Head Fire, but they did.”

Isleta’s governor said in his statement he hopes the collaboration will continue in spite of the fire. “We share this forest environment and it is important that we work cooperatively to make it as healthy and safe as possible.”

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The Forest Service started the Dog Head Fire, through its fuel reduction policy and land management.

That information was released this morning by the Forest Service, who so far have refused to tell The Independent who conducted the investigation, despite repeated requests for that information.

“Now that the facts have been gathered, we can verify that the Dog Head wildfire originated from a masticator which is a machine that shreds small trees to reduce the amount of hazardous fuels in the forest,” said a release on the Dog Head Fire Information page on Facebook. As of this writing, The Independent is still waiting for return phone calls from the Forest Service. “We were unable to provide information about the cause of the fire while the cause was under investigation,” the release said.

Containment of the fire is now estimated at 95 percent, after burning 18,000 acres near Chilili.

Twelve single residences and 44 minor structures were destroyed by the fire, according to a press release by the Forest Service.

This story will be updated once The Independent hears from the Forest Service directly.