'Firing operation' called key to limiting Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon advance

·4 min read

Jun. 3—Managers on the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on Friday executed a "firing operation" — in essence, a series of backburns — to combat the blaze on its troublesome western edge. But they acknowledge people living in the area could be wary of the prospect, particularly after two U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns earlier this spring created the fire in the first place.

In a sometimes-emotional briefing Friday morning, operations section chief John Chester outlined the plan, noting officials have been meticulously devising the move in order to lessen the fire's continuing threat east of the small and still-evacuated communities of Terrero, Cowles and Geronimo near the Pecos Wilderness.

The operation began early Friday afternoon. Chester said officials want to use the burns to eliminate fuels and lessen the fire's momentum and intensity before it reaches the containment lines that stand between the stubborn blaze and small communities facing Elk Mountain.

"It's just reducing those fuels, allowing it to back away from the lines in a more moderated intensity so that when the fire gets there, it what we call 'lays down' and hits those buffers," Chester said. "It gives us better options to make sure it stays within those containment lines."

The fire, now at 316,971 acres and 62 percent containment, remains a threat on its west side, ranging from near Angostura in Taos County to the N.M. 63 corridor in western San Miguel County.

Officials have been talking about the firing operation near Elk Mountain for days. Chester said the burn could take several days, in multiple shifts. He described plans to lay five to six miles of hoses so crews could more easily control the fire's edge. Public information officer Mike De Fries called the vegetation in the fire-receptive fuels in the area "gnarly."

But while such tactics have been used before, including when the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze neared Las Vegas, N.M., from a variety of directions, Chester acknowledged the concept of, literally, fighting fire with fire is an anathema to some.

"We know there's a lot of concerns over that," he said of the operation. "We know that folks are asking a lot of questions and worry about that."

Tina Ehrman, who lives in the area where the operation will take place, said she'd been disappointed by what she said was a lack of communication by the Forest Service on the plan.

"We feel like we're out of the loop," she said, adding, "I'm disturbed by that, and I'm disturbed by a large, large area being burned."

Chester, who heads the effort on the fire's southern end, said that after firefighters' safety, protecting the area's natural resources — in particular, watersheds — and public and private lands are crews' top priority.

He said he was is even more acutely aware of the risks residents feel after serving on a team battling a wildfire in his own hometown in Northern California.

His voice cracking at times, Chester, a 30-year firefighter, said he's "spent a lot of times in other people's back yards in that [fire] environment."

"I know what it's like to think about the wilderness. I know what it's like to have fire at the back of my doorstep. I know what it's like to have family members lose their homes," he said. "For me, it's really important that we take the time to really provide the best chance of this operation to be successful, planning it out.

"We've been planning out several days now, multiple days now — folks on the ground who have a lot of experience, a lot of time doing this. As we start to implement this plan, we are taking into consideration those values: the watershed, your communities, your homes, the wilderness you recreate in, you hunt in, you go out to just look at and enjoy the pristine beauty that's around here. So we understand that. We look forward to providing the protection that we need to do to insure that that's there in the future.

"It's gonna have some changes, I'm not gonna say that it's not," he added. "It's gonna be a little bit different. And we hope to minimize that with the plan that we have and how we implement that."

Ehrman, who was evacuated from the area nearly two weeks ago, said she understood there were many priority areas when the fire was at its worst but questioned why the western edge had not been dealt with earlier.

"But now it's the best of luck," she said, "because the alternative is very scary."