(NewsNation) —The largest wildfire in the history of New Mexico, which has destroyed 330 homes and caused $132 million in damage, was started by the U.S. Forest Service.
Thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes and more than 300,000 acres of land have been burned in a fire that investigators have determined started from a planned “controlled-burn” fire started by the U.S. Forest Service.
The fire is 50% contained and more than 3,000 firefighters have been deployed to fight it. Officials said this week that the fire has “a lot of potential left in it.”
It is not clear how the Forest Service lost control of the planned fire. Controlled blazes have long been used to maintain the health of forests by clearing away dead foliage and undergrowth, but the agency said it will put a pause on planned fires and will review its protocols.
“The Forest Service oversees an average of 4,500 prescribed fires each year and in 99.84% of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” said Randy Moore, chief of the Forest Service.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said it was “unfathomable” the U.S. Forest Service caused the actions that had caused people in New Mexico “pain and suffering.”
“It is evident the federal government must take a hard look at their fire management practices and make sure they account for a rapidly changing climate,” Lujan Grisham said. “New Mexico and the West must take every precaution to prevent fires of this magnitude from occurring, especially as precipitation levels continue to decrease and temperatures rise.”
Matthew Hurteau, fire ecologist at the University of New Mexico, said the “rule book” is changing on planned fires because of climate change.
“These ecosystems are a lot drier than they ever were before because the atmosphere is a lot warmer, it sucks moisture out of them and it makes the ecosystem a lot more reactive,” Hurteau said. “They’re trying to manage that risk with prescribed burning and have protocols in place to do that … but I don’t think those protocols necessarily account for changing climate.”
That increased dryness in the atmosphere has led to “exponential growth” in the size of wildfires, Hurteau said. It is changing so rapidly, it can be hard for public officials to keep up.
“We need to move faster in terms of incorporating that information into the … process for planning prescribed burns, so we can keep using this important tool,” he said.
Hurteau said the answer to solving these wildfires is not to stop prescribed burns. In fact, he said stopping prescribed burns would increase the risk of having more wildfires as the planned fires are important for reducing the amount of vegetation in high-risk areas.
“It’s a challenging place to be, it’s a complicated situation that’s going to require more safety checks going forward to deal with some of the lack of information that we have and that we in the scientific community are trying to acquire quickly so we can provide it to forest managers,” Hurteau said.
Hurteau said evidence of how pre-planned fires can work can be seen in the same national forest in New Mexico where the fire started by the Forest Service is raging. A second wildfire in the Jemez Mountains is under control because of years of well-handled pre-planned fires being conducted there.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.