NM’s largest wildfire still burning
A historically large wildfire is still burning in New Mexico and one rancher said accountability from the U.S. Forest Service is absent.
The Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fire in northern New Mexico, sparked by a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn is the state’s largest wildfire. The two fires that have converged to burn 318,599 acres and 330 structures continues to burn forcing new evacuations amid continued critically dry and windy conditions. At press time, containment is 66%.
Rancher Lydia Kyle and her family were displaced from the fire and while no structures were lost, the fire burned the power poles that supply power to the ranch headquarters, their home, and the shipping pens. Kyle said they knew the drought conditions would mean feeding cows through the summer, which can’t be helped. However, the lack of accountability from the Forest Service has become frustrating at best.
Kyle is a fourth-generation cattle rancher from the Great Basin of the West Coast. She and her husband worked on their family operation until moving to northern New Mexico where they manage a cattle operation near the Santa Fe National Forest.
The USFS announced a 90-day pause for prescribed burns, citing extreme wildfire danger and a review of policies and procedures. The majority of prescribed burns are completed between September and May.
The Hermits Peak Fire began April 6 as a result of the Las Dispensas prescribed fire on the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. Although forecasted weather conditions were within parameters for the prescribed fire, unexpected erratic winds in the late afternoon caused multiple spot fires that spread outside the project boundary. It was declared a wildfire at approximately 4:30 p.m. on April 6, 2022.
Kyle said she remembers clearly seeing this fire from her home because she remembers thinking it was a terrible day for a prescribed burn due to 30 to 40 mph winds and exceptional drought conditions.
Named the Hermits Peak Fire, the wildfire began approximately 12 miles northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., at the base of Hermits Peak in the Pecos Wilderness. According to officials, the Hermits Peak Fire is burning through mixed conifer in steep, rugged terrain that poses challenges for firefighter access. Kyle said it also threatened and burned homes, U.S. Forest Service lands, privately owned lands, and agricultural lands.
“It was rolling hot and heavy, but it was blowing away from us so while the community was dealing with it, we were watching it and lending help where we could,” she said.
Nearly two weeks later on April 19, a second fire started not far from the original blaze. The Calf Canyon Fire, according to officials, was caused by a pile burn holdover from January that remained dormant under the surface through three winter snow events before reemerging in April. A holdover fire, also called a sleeper fire, is a fire that remains dormant for a considerable time.
The two fires converged and was renamed the Hermits Peak Complex Fire. Kyle’s family evacuated on April 29 when the wind shifted, blowing the fire on them. By that point, she said, they had been watching the fire for nearly a month from afar but her husband called her that day and they agreed she needed to pack necessities. Even so, she said she had her doubts that the fire could reach them without shifting once again.
The Kyles gathered the ranch’s horses and moved them and packed items from the house. The couple have three small children and when the fire crested the peak closest to the ranch with 200- and 300-foot-high flames and a fire tornado, the couple woke their children.
“It wasn’t even burning trees, it was exploding trees,” she said. “That’s how hot and how fast it was coming down that mountain.”
Trucks and trailers were hooked up and waiting, kids and horses were loaded, and it was only when they were leaving the ranch that they saw emergency vehicles en route to evacuate families even closer to the fire. That is why, she said, some neighbors literally escaped with only the shirts on their backs.
As for the cattle, the couple had already moved them to areas away from timber where they were able to remain safe and get away if necessary. The fire didn’t actually make it to the ranch for another two days due to ever shifting and changing winds.
The pastures, she said, in the midst of a drought and seven months since the last precipitation, were already short and provided poor fire fuel. The timber on the ranch burned and the pastures, between back burns and the fire, suffered extensive damage.
“We were preparing for a drought year anyway,” she said. “Not having forage due to a wildfire is just insult to injury, but we were prepared to not have a whole lot of summer forage anyway. You supplement as best you can, you downsize if you have to, and that’s just the ebb and flow of agriculture in the southwest frankly.”
The fire is still burning and even though the evacuation orders have been lifted and the structures on the ranch were not burned, the utility poles serving the headquarters, their home, and the working corrals were destroyed, leaving the ranch without power.
Kyle said the lack of mass media coverage has been frustrating, especially because it’s the largest wildfire in the state’s history, the largest wildfire currently burning in the U.S., and one that began as a prescribed burn. However, she said smaller or less traditional media outlets are telling the story and she anticipates that will get more traction that a quick blurb on a national news show.
“I think if there is enough noise made about what caused the largest wildfire in New Mexico state history, that has displaced 26,000 families from a tiny little county in northern New Mexico, that’s the only way there will be accountability,” she said.
She said the crews that started the burn were likely carrying out orders and that the accountability ought not land on their shoulders.
“There is someone in an office somewhere that gave this the green stamp of approval,” she said. “There needs to be accountability. If a private citizen, an agriculturist, or a rancher had lit a prescribed burn on their private property that burned 300,000 acres, they would be spending their life in jail. So what happens when the government does it?”
That being said, Kyle said those in agriculture are familiar with the regenerative power of fire and she said they’re already seeing a bit of green. Without rain, of course, that won’t stay the case but for now, she’s awaiting the improved pasture potential.
The North Park Stockgrowers Association and Western Landowners Alliance hosted a meeting in Walden, Colo., on June 20 for northern Colorado ranchers focused on reducing conflict between working lands and wildlife as naturally migrating wolves…
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