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U.S. Forest Service pauses prescribed burns, announces review after New Mexico wildfire

NBC News logo NBC News 5/21/2022 Phil Helsel
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Citing extreme wildfire conditions, the U.S. Forest Service is suspending prescribed burns while it conducts a review of its practices, the agency head announced Friday.

The move comes a month after a prescribed burn — which are used to reduce wildfire risk — spread out of its boundary in New Mexico and became the largest wildfire currently burning in the United States.

The Forest Service will conduct a 90-day review of protocols, decision support tools and practices ahead of planned operations this fall, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a statement.

"Our primary goal in engaging prescribed fires and wildfires is to ensure the safety of the communities involved," Moore said.

"The communities we serve, and our employees deserve the very best tools and science supporting them as we continue to navigate toward reducing the risk of severe wildfires in the future," he said.

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The announcement on a pause was made as much of the Southwest was under “red flag,” or wildfire risk, warnings due to hot, dry conditions.

The Hermits Peak Fire started April 6, and it occurred after “unexpected erratic winds” caused multiple spot fires outside the boundaries of the prescribed burn, the Forest Service said.

The Calf Canyon Fire started to the west of that blaze on April 19, and its cause is listed as being under investigation. The two fires later merged and have burned more than 303,000 acres.

The fire was 40 percent contained Friday. More than 2,000 firefighters were battling the wildfire. At least 277 structures, including 166 homes, have been destroyed in the fire, the San Miguel County Sheriff's Office has said.

Moore has ordered a review specifically about the Hermits Peak Fire, the Forest Service has said.

He said wildfires are increasingly extreme because of climate change and drought, and he called prescribed burns essential tools to reduce the risk of wildfires. “In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” Moore said in Friday's statement.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she supports the pause, but also said that well-managed prescribed burns are important tools.

“It is critical that federal agencies update and modernize these practices in response to a changing climate, as what used to be considered extreme conditions are now much more common — the situation unfolding in New Mexico right now demonstrates without a doubt the grave consequences of neglecting to do so,” she said in a statement.

Cooler weather and better conditions were expected to help in firefighting efforts this weekend, officials said at a briefing Friday.

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