Attorney General Gary King assigned Clarence Gibson a special investigator from the Attorney General’s office to review various government records, observe the Little Bear Fire’s point of origin and interview interested parties in a complaint filed by Alto resident Guy Hence. The complaint alleged the USFS may have mismanaged the battle against the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso earlier this summer.
A letter from the AG’s office dated Aug. 17 addressed to the complainant and officials stated:
“The USFS responded to the fire in a prompt fashion. Substantial resources were committed to containing the fire, which unfortunately spread rapidly, despite the best efforts put out the fire. There is no evidence that anything other than a full fire suppression effort was made by the federal authorities tasked with fighting this massive fire. Under a time of emergency it is inevitable that rumors fly when a bad situation turns much worse. Our office is confident that the public records of the USFS indicate that everything was done in an expeditious fashion to combat what would become the largest wildfire in New Mexico history...It is our belief that the USFS cooperated completely with Agent Gibson and he had unfettered access to all necessary records and personnel. As a result of our investigation, this matter will be closed without further action on our part.”
The letter, which is published on the AG’s website, details Attorney General King’s deep regret that tremendous damage was done to the community, especially the loss of so many family homes. Further details of the investigation conclude that the steep and extremely rugged terrain prevented the use of mechanized equipment at the fire’s point of origin and that the heavy forest canopy seriously limited the use of aerial slurry planes to douse the fire.
The AG’s Office concludes that a review of the handling of the Little Bear Fire by an independent State agency was well warranted.
Smokey Bear Ranger District Ranger David Warnack has openly contended that the efforts of the USFS fire crews were focused on full suppression, during his presentation to county commissioners and an appearance at a Little Bear Fire Reform Group public meeting.
Warnack’s report explains that a helicopter and crew were immediately dispatched and they sized up the fire from the air at 1/4 acre in size. The fire was located at the 10,200 foot elevation in steep rugged terrain. Firefighters were granted verbal approval from the forest supervisor to land the helicopter and operate chainsaws within the White Mountain Wilderness. A decision was made to fight the fire aggressively, quickly, and safely with the objective of keeping it small which according to the report implemented a full suppression strategy.
The Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition (LBFRC) is not satisfied with the Attorney General’s review of the Little Bear Fire.
The group released a statement to the Ruidoso Free Press stating: On May 15, Governor Martinez declared a state of emergency due to severe drought conditions. Three weeks later, on Monday, June 4, a late afternoon lightning strike started the Little Bear Fire. The fire was managed by a 20-person hotshot crew and continued to grow in size as it burned in dense fuel, under calm weather conditions, from Monday afternoon through Friday morning.
A red-flag warning, issued earlier that week, proved accurate as 30-40 mph wind gusts arrived late that week (and continued through the following Monday). On Friday afternoon, June 8, the once small fire blew up into an uncontrollable rage. It was eventually contained and 44,330 acres of public and private lands were burned, hundreds of structures were lost, and significant damage was inflicted on watersheds, wildlife, wildlife habitats.
LBFRC contends that the USFS did not, while weather conditions were calm, aggressively or sufficiently attack the fire: a single hotshot crew worked the fire, and a helicopter water bucket drop was not attempted until Thursday. It was not until the fire blew up on Friday afternoon, June 8, that significant resources were ordered and deployed, including aircraft. But the winds were too strong and it was too late. The statement contends that on Aug. 6, it was reported that, “Hot Shot supervisor for the Smokey Bear Ranger District, Rich Dolphin, said perhaps aerial drops should have been attempted early on.”
LBRC Chairperson Mary Weaver said “Recently, in response to major wildfires burning across the western states, the USFS has temporarily directed fire managers to aggressively put wildfires out while they are small. Our website (lbfr.org) cites several articles describing this new directive. Since these policies can be changed now, after many devastating wildfires this year, then why weren’t they changed earlier when much of the west was under severe drought conditions?”
The statement concludes that LBFRC believes in proper land management which includes appropriate forest treatments, and once treated the reintroduction of prescribed fire under safe weather conditions. The statement also demands “better management policies that will conserve our national forests rather than see them reduced to wastelands that won’t grow a pine tree for the next 100 years.”