HOUSTON, June 21 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Forest Service has admitted that multiple miscalculations and errors during its routine prescribed burn had sparked the largest wildfire in the history of western mountain state New Mexico.
The prescribed burn, part of a forest-management plan to thin trees and therefore reduce the risk of more serious damaging blazes, ultimately started the Hermits Peak fire which has burned over 341,000 acres in the state since April 6, the Forest Service said in a review issued Tuesday.
Fire managers had followed a plan within approved limits, but "the prescribed fire was burning under much drier conditions than they understood," said the review.
The wildfire, which has been 72 percent contained as of Tuesday, has destroyed hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of residents evacuated.
Fire personnel made a series of missteps. They "did not cease ignitions or suppress the prescribed fire after clear indications of high-fire intensity," used National Weather Service forecasts instead of relying on "local expertise" to understand variable wind conditions and some were using a radio frequency that made them unreachable on several occasions, said the review.
District fire employees also perceived pressure to "accomplish the mission," which may have led to taking greater risks, the inquiry found.
Other factors also contributed to the fast spreading of the fire, including changes in fuel conditions, underestimated potential fire behavior outside the burn unit, and conducting the prescribed fire on the warmer and drier end of the prescription.
"Prescribed fire must remain a tool in our toolbox to combat them (wildfires). Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are narrowing the windows where this tool can be used safely," the review added.
A CNN report said a years-long backlog of projects owing to department furloughs during the 2018-2019 government shutdown, complications of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and an injunction related to the Mexican Spotted Owl all restricted the Forest Service's ability to conduct prescribed burns in the years prior to spring 2022.
Multiple years of drought, limited snowpack with less moisture than normal, combined with a pileup of fuels all helped spur the fire, said the report.
On Monday U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a 90-day pause of prescribed fire operations on National Forest lands. He said in 99.84 percent of cases, the burns go as planned.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham tweeted on Tuesday that he will "continue working to hold the federal government accountable for making New Mexicans whole" after the USFS's negligence.
The U.S. Forest Service conducts about 4,500 prescribed fires each year, according to a New York Times report. ■