The Forest Service says it was responsible for both the blazes that merged late last month and created the largest fire in New Mexico history.
The agency said Friday that its fire investigators determined the Calf Canyon Fire was started by a holdover fire, or sleeper fire, from a federal pile burn that concluded Jan. 29.
Though crews monitored the fire for a couple days following the conclusion of the burn, the Forest Service said, it remained dormant and survived three winter snow events before it reignited and escaped containment lines in April and was “significantly” spread by a wind event.
The Calf Canyon Fire then merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which was also started by an escaped federal prescribed burn, to cause New Mexico’s biggest-ever fire.
“The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service – an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands – is unfathomable,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said in a statement.
“I appreciate the U.S. Forest Service assuming responsibility for the federal actions that caused this terrible crisis.”
The governor said the fire, which is still ongoing, has destroyed hundreds of homes, cost state and local governments millions and displaced tens of thousands of residents in the state.
The Forest Service said last week it would pause prescribed burns on National Forest System land for 90 days to reevaluate its policies.
“The Santa Fe National Forest is 100 percent focused on suppressing these fires with the support of the Type 1 incident management teams who are fully prepared to manage complex, all-risk situations,” Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Debbie Cress said in a Friday statement.
“Our commitment is to manage the public lands entrusted to us by improving the forest’s resilience to the many stressors they are facing, including larger, hotter wildfires, historic levels of drought, rising temperatures, and insects and disease.”
Grisham has asked President Biden to direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for all the fire-related recovery efforts in the state.