What was supposed to be a controlled burn by federal officials spiraled out of control and has become the biggest blaze in recorded history in New Mexico recently as United States President Joe Biden landed in the region Saturday amid anger and frustration from wildfire survivors.
Driven by drought and wind, the fire has destroyed hundreds of homes in mountains northeast of Santa Fe since two controlled burns by the US Forest Service (USFS) went out of control in April.
Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated Indo-Hispano farming villages with twice the national poverty rate, upending fragile economies where residents cut firewood and raise hay to get by.
“This is not a natural disaster, this was man-made by a government entity,” said Ella Arellano, whose family lost hundreds of acres of forest around the village of Holman. “It’s a mess, just a big mess that will take generations to recover from.”
With over 320,000 acres (129,500 hectares) of mountains blackened by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire, communities are preparing for mudslides, ash flows and flooding in areas where extreme fire gave forest floors the water absorbency equivalent of asphalt.
Before departing for New Mexico Biden said he supported full federal funding to compensate for the cost of firefighting and recovery but added that it needed congressional approval.
“I can’t commit that on my own,” Biden said of the need for Congress to back full funding.
So far the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has given over $3 million to more than 900 households. But maximum FEMA payouts of around $40,000 for destroyed houses are in some cases not enough to cover the loss of farm equipment that burned alongside homes, which at one house was likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The blaze is burning along with another in southwest New Mexico that is the second largest in state history, underlining concerns that climate change is intensifying fires that overwhelm firefighters and threaten to eventually destroy most US Southwest forests.
Forest Service investigators found that a USFS controlled burn jumped out of bounds on April 6 to start the Hermits Peak Fire. The Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a USFS burn pile of logs and branches on April 19. The two fires merged on April 22.
To prevent fires from spreading, land managers sometimes use controlled burns to reduce small trees, shrubs and other material that fuel wildfires. The US Forest Service has since called for a temporary nationwide halt to the practice while it reviews procedures.