In March, the Forest Service released an Environmental Assessment report about the Española and Pecos-Las Vegas ranger districts about what they call the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. Last week the federal agency got some heat from Santa Fe County about their land management practices with respect to fire.”

The Landscape Resiliency Project is proposed by the Forest Service, which issued a 260-page report on its Environmental Assessment. A second report, “Gallinas-Las Dispensas Prescribed Fire Declared Wildfire Review,” analyzed the events leading up to the catastrophic Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which to date has burned nearly 350,000 acres and hundreds of homes.

At last report, the fire—two prescribed fires that merged into one—is 93% contained, and is under “full suppression strategy.”

The Santa Fe County Commission wants the Forest Service to do an Environmental Impact Statement, on the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, and passed a resolution unanimously to say so. District 3 Commissioner Rudy Nelson Garcia was not present.

Written by Commissioner Anna Hansen, the resolution calls the Forest Service to task for its “Finding of No Significant Impact … to conduct extensive ground disturbing activities in the forests east of Santa Fe in March 2022” based on that Environmental Assessment.

The Forest Service selected “Alternative 2 which calls for cutting and intentional burning of vegetation on 38,680 acres across a 50,566-acre project area over the next 10 to 15 years,” the resolution says, also noting the tourism the wilderness attracts.

The resolution “encourages” the Forest Service to “conduct a comprehensive and objective analysis for the SFMLRP,” including “effective notice to the public including presentations in downtown Santa Fe” and incorporating “a broad range of forest and fire ecology research before taking any action.”

The resolution says that the fire “has destroyed at least 400 homes, forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate their properties” and cost more than $248 million. It notes that the Forest Service intends to undertake “thousands of acres of intentional burns per year … without substantive changes to their (flawed) methods, use of personnel, or strategy for climate change.”

It says that Moore’s review “specifically re-evaluates the viability of SFNF projects” and that fire personnel are pressured to “accomplish the mission.”

The resolution asks the Forest Service to prepare a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement “that would in every respect engage the public, respond to a full and fair discussion of significant environmental impacts, examine alternatives, including preserving forests in their natural condition, and document unavoidable adverse effects prior to commencing any action.”

It urges the federal agency to investigate alternatives to “large-scale fuel reductions, both to restore the forest and to address wildfire risk” and that the Forest Service do a better job of letting the public know about possible adverse effects of a fire.

The county also requested that the Forest Service re-evaluate “recent scientific literature” on climate change and fire.

Finally, the resolution asks that the Forest Service “cease all prescribed burns” in the Landscape Resiliency Project area “until the greater understanding and concomitant risk reduction provided by these reviews is in place.”

The Commission also resolved to send the Resolution to New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, as the county government has no authority over the federal agency or its operations.

The Resolution was co-sponsored by Commission Chair Anna Hamilton.

Hansen said Moore’s review didn’t review whether the Forest Service protocols, “even when followed, are still valid under accelerating climate change conditions.”

She added, “If the Forest Service will not even do a test burn in the same dense forest they plan to prescribed burn then all other indicators and protocols as well as Forest Service personnel ability to understand what those things mean should also be questioned.”

She said the review did not address the cause of the failures, and instead advocates for more burns, adding, “We need to talk. U.S. Forest Service, let’s talk.”

According to the Southwest Coordination Center of the National Fire Center, this year in New Mexico 711,859 acres have burned on Forest Service land that was human-caused. Another 7,805 acres burned after lightning strikes, including one in the Manzano Mountains.

All commissioners present were in agreement with the Resolution. Hamilton noted that she is both an environmental scientist and a firefighter. “I remember talking with my husband about the concept of lighting a fire on what was a Red Flag day.”

She said the risk profile “for what can be done under current climate conditions is very different than it was even three or four years ago. … We all saw the effects of something that apparently the Forest Service had considered a low probability but an exceedingly high negative impact in their nonexistent risk assessment.”

Several members of the public also spoke to the issue, all in favor of the Resolution. After a laundry list of what the Forest Service failed to do, Valerie Germillion said, “So their judgement was in question, their protocols are in question because they did not fulfill their own protocols. … I would not let them run a carnival in my backyard.”

David Biernbaum said the forest “does not belong to the Forest Service, it belongs to the people.” He added that the Forest Service “has demonstrated they are prone to hurry and rush into action when caution and thoughtfulness are very much needed.”

Another resident, Sam Hitt, said public concerns have been dismissed “repeatedly” by the Forest Service, something echoed by another commenter. “Independent scientists need to be listened to, and when they advise avoiding unnecessary risk in the rush to meet unrealistic goals, they should be listened to, and they haven’t in the past.”

Wildfire Review

The June 2022 report by Moore details the events leading up to the Las Dispensas April 6 prescribed fire becoming a wildfire. That fire later merged with the Calf Canyon Fire.

According to the National Weather Service, in April of this year the statewide temperature was 55.4 degrees, 3.6 degrees below the long-term normal of 51.8 degrees.

It was ranked as the 11th warmest April on record. Average statewide precipitation in April was 0.06 inches, 0.66 inches below the long-term normal of 0.72 inches. It was reported as the second-driest April on record.

On April 5, the NWS reported wind gusts of 64 miles per hour in Clines Corners and sustained wind speed of 47 miles per hour.

As of April 5, Red Flag warnings went into place across the Southwest because of high winds and low humidity.

Globally, it was the 5th warmest April on record.

In his introduction, Moore says, “Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered. We know these conditions are leading to more frequent and intense wildfires. … Fires are outpacing our models and, as the final report notes, we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.”

According to that introduction, Moore “temporarily ceased all Forest Service prescribed burning nationwide as an immediate safety precaution due to continued extreme conditions,” noting in the same paragraph, “Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely.”

The review team found that the team assigned to Las Dispensas prescribed burn “followed their approved fire plan,” but goes on to say that the analysis used by the Forest Service greatly underestimated the dryness of the fuel, and ignored the fuel load of the forest beyond the prescribed burn area.

The review says that “training and education efforts are often outdated and do not incorporate the latest tools or latest fire science available” and that there are “few subject matter experts” available.

The report also says that in recent years the Forest Service has treated up to 3 million acres a year “for hazardous fuels and forest health” nationwide, adding that this number is expected to increase to between 2.5 million and 4 million acres a year nationwide. “However, because the majority of the additional fuels reduction effort will be focused in the West, some regions may actually be expected to quadruple their hazardous fuel reduction efforts,” the review says.

The Gallinas Watershed was identified in the 2001 National Fire Plan as a community at risk, with escaped prescribed burn specifically noted as a risk to the area.

A test burn was considered successful, but was not representative of the area prescribed for burning, with significantly less vegetation, the review says, adding that the Environmental Assessment for the area has not been revisited in the 16 years since it was signed, “although changes in fuel conditions likely occurred during that time.”

The holding plan minimum organizational capabilities were determined on “misguided understanding of the resources necessary to effectively stop fire outside the line.”

The contingency plan for that prescribed burn’s “resources identified were not adequate,” the review goes on to say.

The review also says, It appears that neither identified water resources nor extensive logistical support was addressed in the prescribed fire plan.”

Moreover, the review says, piles from thinning projects “contributed to jackpots” and spot fires.

After identifying many areas of weakness in the Forest Service’s prescribed burn, the report concludes that “restoring fire to these systems is the only path to living better with fire, to persisting on a planet that will only see more fire,” the review says, quoting Moore: “We must do more prescribed burning to improve the health and resilience of our forests and grasslands. That work is vital to reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfires that are devastating to people, infrastructure and landscape health. Simultaneously, we must minimize impacts to communities and businesses when we do that work, as well as ensure our employees and partners have the best support and tools available to be successful.”