Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández
CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION NEWS
This week, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández sent a letter to United States Forest Service Chief Randy Moore requesting a response regarding the recent prescribed burn that led to the Hermits Peak Fire in New Mexico.
On April 6, the US Forest Service initiated the Las Dispensas prescribed burn despite dangerous conditions brought on by an extremely dry winter and unpredictable winds. The prescribed burn quickly exceeded the containment capabilities of the U.S. Forest Service and escalated into the current Hermits Peak Fire in Northern New Mexico.
“The removal of deadwood and other fuel biomass through prescribed burns is a necessary tool to prevent wildfires, but it should only be done in the safest conditions. Northern New Mexico had an extremely dry winter, is in a prolonged drought and is currently experiencing a warm spring with erratic winds. These conditions are not rare during spring in New Mexico. I, and many in the local communities, were shocked that the Forest Service would perform a prescribed burn during these conditions.” said Leger Fernández in the letter.
Currently, Hermits Peak Fire has merged with the Calf Canyon fire to engulf over 160,104 acres of New Mexican land. The fire continues to grow by the day, putting lives at risk and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and threatening thousands more.
On May 4, President Biden declared the ongoing wildfires in New Mexico a major disaster and ordered Federal aid to supplement ongoing State and local recovery efforts in the affected areas.
Note: If you or someone you know is impacted by the fire, you may be eligible for federal assistance. Please call 800-621-3362 or visit disasterassistance.gov to learn more.
Read the full text of the letter below
“Dear Chief Moore:
I am deeply concerned with the Las Dispensas prescribed burn that caused the Hermits Peak Fire. I thank the Forest Service for its effort to mitigate fire risk and address the fires in New Mexico. Your incident teams and personnel on the ground are doing a good job keeping the community informed and battling the blaze. However, it would have been so much better to not have this blaze started in the first place.
I am outraged that a mistake like this has put the lives of firefighters and members of the community at risk as well as forced evacuations for New Mexicans, many of whom have also lost their homes, livestock, and possessions.
Currently, the raging Hermits Peak Fire has merged with the Calf Canyon fire to engulf over 160,104 acres of New Mexican land. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and hundreds more are threatened. Lives are at risk every day. Students’ education is disrupted and the economies of numerous communities are in shambles.
New Mexicans will feel the damage from this fire for years and generations to come. Many of these tight knit communities and homes have existed for centuries and may never be the same. The forests that have burnt to ashes are integral to the culture, history, and economy of the communities embedded in them.
The removal of deadwood and other fuel biomass through prescribed burns is a necessary tool to prevent wildfires, but it should only be done in the safest conditions. Northern New Mexico had an extremely dry winter, is in a prolonged drought and is currently experiencing a warm spring with erratic winds. These conditions are not rare during spring in New Mexico. I, and many in the local communities, were shocked that the Forest Service would perform a prescribed burn during these conditions.
I am deeply concerned about the prospects of another fire resulting from a prescribed burn and the level at which USFS engages with the local community when planning these events. I want to ensure that we can restore the community’s trust in the Forest Service. It is my job to hold your agency accountable and help build the working relationship we will need to prevent future fires. To begin the process of restoring that trust, I request that you respond to the following questions regarding the U.S. Forest Service practices.
- Have you completed an internal investigation as to how the Las Dispensas prescribed fire got out of control? If so, what were the results? If not, you must immediately initiate an investigation into the decision to start the controlled burn as well as USFS’s failure to prevent the controlled burn from getting out of control. This can not happen again. I request a copy of any such investigation.
- What protocol or controls are in place to make sure a controlled burn does not get out of hand? Did USFS follow these protocols during the Las Dispensas prescribed fire?
- When was the last time you updated your protocols and have you taken into account the mega drought and effects of climate change?
- Does USFS admit responsibility for starting the Hermits Peak Fire?
- What is your process of consulting with or notifying local officials before beginning a prescribed burn?
- What is your process for communicating with the surrounding community in advance of a prescribed burn, including soliciting any feedback from the surrounding community?
- If it is deemed unsafe to utilize prescribed burns, what other tools are at your disposal to remove deadwood or otherwise minimize wildfire risk?
I look forward to working with you to ensure that another prescribed burn does not spark a large wildfire again. I also look forward to continuing to work closely with your agency to make sure that we provide assistance to New Mexicans as expeditiously as possible. Thank you for your timely response.”