We know now that the largest recorded fire in New Mexico history was started by an escaped “prescribed burn,” or rather by two. The Hermit’s Peak fire bolted away on April 6 when unexpectedly gusty winds blew sparks beyond control lines. Then the Calf Canyon fire raced off on April 9 when similar winds fanned embers in burn piles first kindled in January. The two fires soon merged. Together, as of June 12, they have scorched 320,333 acres, with two-thirds of the fire perimeter regarded as contained.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reaction was to insist that federal agencies reconsider their policy on spring burns. The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Randy Moore, responded by announcing a halt on prescribed burning for a 90-day review period. Inevitably, the blowups invited comparison to the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that began as a prescribed burn, then blew out of Bandelier National Monument and into Los Alamos. It was the largest chronicled fire in the state’s history — until now. Prescribed fire is not likely to be challenged in principle. Recognition seems widespread that controlled burning is a legitimate source of good fire that can reduce the threat from areas likely to burn. States from Florida to California have even reformed liability law to encourage burning on private lands.