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Forest Service will change firefighting protocol following Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire

The US Forest Service is changing some of its protocol when it comes to prescribed burns. It comes after the largest and most destructive fire in New Mexico history: Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak.

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The U.S. Forest Service is changing some of its protocol when it comes to prescribed burns. It comes after the largest and most destructive fire in New Mexico history: Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak.

“We can use drones, we can use real platforms, so our planes can fly from a much higher altitude. But we can also use the Palm IR if we have someone with a prescribed burn, where he or she uses a phone, the technology of a phone or a specific Palm Pilot with infrared capabilities to detect the heat,” said Jacob Nuttall, a regional fire director at the US Forest Service.

Nuttall says another important aspect is working on communication with the community and partners to ensure they know when a prescribed burn has occurred.

The Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire burned through more than 341,000 acres of land. Both fires started as prescribed burns that got out of control. Then they went together in one huge forest fire.

Nuttall says if a prescribed burn gets out of hand again, the Forest Service will be better prepared.

“The improvement in the 2022 National Prescribed Fire Review is being able to identify emergency sources. So resources that may not be on scene need to respond to the prescribed fire within 30 minutes,” Nuttall said.

Another change is offering a pay increase for federal wildland firefighters, but that could disappear.

“Most importantly, we have received bipartisan support for a permanent solution with firefighter pay. Has it been substantial, what we have seen in a temporary status over the last few years, absolutely,” Nuttall said.

Some of that support comes from state Rep. Theresa Leger Fernandez, who says she is actively pushing for a permanent wage increase.

“They must be paid what they are entitled to, but we must also ensure that we address any health issues that arise from that work. In the bipartisan infrastructure bill, we included $600 million to raise their wages. I want to make that permanent, and that is why in the appropriation process that we are now completing from my side, we have pushed for higher wages, specifically about $76 million and another $216 million,” Leger Fernandez said.

The U.S. Forest Service is trying to regain trust through more successful burns. They initially stopped using prescribed burns altogether, despite the criticism, but the agency says prescribed burns help the overall health of a forest.

“It’s one of the treatment mechanisms that we have for a lot of our landscapes,” Nutall explained. “We continue to ramp up our prescribed fires in the Southwest and specifically in New Mexico to ensure we protect the landscapes and reduce hazardous fuels that threaten our communities.”