Last week, the U.S. Forest Service released an 85-page report detailing what went wrong with the Las Dispensas Prescribed Burn to cause the Hermits Peak Fire. The results are hard to stomach in a community that has been hit so hard by the fire because they show how easily this could, and should, have been avoided.
Among the most disturbing findings were that the plan for the prescribed burn seems to have been approved multiple times without additional review in the years following the initial approval. Also, the forest preservation plan that was used as the template for this burn was first formulated in 2004, and has not been updated in any way since 2006, despite large changes in the forest in the years that followed.
When it came time for the actual burn to take place, officials did not bring enough water with them to the site to stop fires from breaking out. They also lit a test fire in a sparsely dense area, where success was much more likely, and did not account for the heavily forested areas in the burn zone before lighting the full prescribed burn.
Fixing any one of the numerous errors may have prevented the largest wildfire in state history, and may have saved more than 300 homes that are no longer standing. This cannot be tolerated, at the state or federal level. This shows massive issues with the processes used by the Forest Service, an agency trusted across the country to properly thin overgrown forests. They can talk all they want about the massive success rate of prescribed burns, how 99 percent of them go off without a hitch. But the fact is, that success rate doesn’t hold true in this state.
Locally, both the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fires were caused by mistakes made by the Forest Service. The Calf Canyon Fire began as a result of a dormant pile burn in January. Smoke was noticed at that location 10 days before it became a wildfire, but nothing was done to prevent the spread or make sure the original pile burn was fully extinguished. These are two horrible mistakes by this agency, and despite the report that shows obvious negligence, we have yet to see a real apology from this situation.
The 90-day pause on prescribed burns that is currently in effect nationwide is the least they could do to try to make up for this. Without an overhaul of their processes and their system of checks and balances, we can only imagine what the next mistake will cause. We understand that prescribed burns are a necessary part of thinning our forests, which is why we care so much that they are done properly and without the sloppiness and carelessness that went into the ones locally.
We hate to see our community suffering, especially because of something that seems to have been preventable. Their culpability doesn’t stop when the fire is extinguished. We are now worrying about floods that are a direct result of the damage caused by the wildfires. Any damage caused will be additional blood on the hands of the officials who permitted the prescribed burns to be done so carelessly, whether they accept responsibility or not. We feel awful for everyone that has suffered because of this, and we hope the federal government does what is right and takes care of all the costs of what they caused.