The Secret Fire

The Indios Fire in the Jemez Mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest Photo: US Forest Service.

At midday on May 19th, Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) fire managers were notified of a new wildfire start within the Chama River Canyon Wilderness on the Coyote Ranger District, northwest of the traditional rural village of Coyote. The cause of the fire ignition was a lightning strike.

By the next day, the fire had grown to approximately 150-200 acres and was named the Indios Fire. It spread primarily to the northeast over the next three days, burning along the boundary of the wilderness, with no imminent threats to people or property. The fire was burning in dry forest, and in the midst of a strong wind pattern.

A May 20th SFNF press release about the fire quoted Forest Supervisor Shaun Sanchez as stating, “Wildfires have the potential to decrease fuels and increase the health and resilience of forests. Fire is a natural and frequent component of the ecosystem in the area, and our team will look for opportunities to restore forest health when conditions permit.”

It seems apparent that the Forest Service took the opportunity to ignite much of the Indios Fire themselves for “resource management objectives,” based on #firemappers satellite thermal hotspot maps, along with some cloudy language in Forest Service press releases and fire briefings. The Forest Service provided very little information to the public about what actually caused the majority of the Indios Fire to burn. That was the secret fire. The secret was that most of the fire wasn’t caused by the lightning strike; it was from intentional aerial and ground ignitions by the Forest Service called firing operations. Anyone simply reading the Forest Service’s fire news releases and listening to the fire briefings would not have understood this, and in fact most of the public still does not realize what actually happened.

The fire grew slowly for the first few days, burning to the northeast up and across a canyon slope. Then it suddenly turned downhill and quickly burned two miles east through the canyon bottom and up to the mesa on the other side. A few days later, the fire burned at high speed four miles to the south, although the prevailing winds were to the east and north. It appears from the aerial hot spot maps that firing operations largely caused these movements, but more information from the Forest Service would be necessary in order to confirm..

Although it was stated in the daily Indios Fire updates that the fire was being allowed to burn for ecosystem benefit and that firing operations were being used at times in support of this strategy, these explanations were extremely understated relative to what can be seen from the aerial hot spot maps. In the fire briefings available on the SFNF Facebook page, the briefing officer would wave his hand around the fire map with such comments as “we did add a little bit of fire yesterday,” and “we did put a little bit of heat in here with the helicopter.” It generally sounded as if they were implementing fairly localized back burns to contain the fire.

The May 22 Indios Fire press release stated “The Northern NM Type 3 IMT is currently moving forward with a strategy to contain the wildfire. The containment strategy means using tactical actions to manage the fire within a predetermined area.” The predetermined area was never shown on a map in press releases or fire briefings, nor was the approximate acreage of the predetermined fire containment perimeter provided. The “containment strategy” often involves greatly expanding a wildfire, while attempting to contain the expanded fire within a predetermined perimeter. That is very different from the conservation strategy of simply allowing naturally-ignited wildfires to burn in a relatively natural way for ecosystem benefit, which is highly supported by conservation scientists and conservation organizations. The agency was igniting fire far beyond back burns and burn outs, and was essentially implementing a large-scale prescribed burn without the required NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis or public inclusion. Planning was being done on-the-spot.

Since the size and location of the predetermined area was not publicly available in Forest Service media, I personally attempted to find out the size of the predetermined area, and to obtain a map of the potential perimeter. I also wanted to find out why the Forest Service believed this kind of wildfire expansion operation was safe to implement in such windy and dry weather conditions. I was provided with only unhelpful and non-specific information and advice from Forest Service personnel such as – “The incident objectives you see on Inciweb [interagency incident information management system] are used to determine the specific firing operations which, like wildfire, are dynamic. Since Forest Plan direction is listed on the Inciweb objectives, I would suggest looking at the Forest Plan for insight into what those are.”

There was just one sentence on Inciweb regarding the Indios Fire management objectives – “Incident objectives include protecting values at risk and meeting Santa Fe National Forest Plan objectives by reintroducing fire into a fire dependent ecosystem.“ The Santa Fe National Forest Plan states, “When conditions facilitate safe progress toward desired conditions, consider managing naturally ignited fires to meet multiple resource objectives concurrently (i.e., protection and resource enhancement), which can change as the fire spreads across the landscape.” Nowhere does the Forest Plan state that the Forest Service can intentionally greatly expand wildfires utilizing aerial and ground firing operations.

None of this addressed my questions regarding the specific objectives and plans for managing the Indios FIre. Since the Forest Service was creating fire lines to contain the expanded fire, it was clear that they must have had an approximate plan for the containment perimeter that they intended that the fire could potentially expand out to. Yes, fires are dynamic situations, but still there had to be a potential perimeter before deploying bulldozers and cutting and burning fire lines.

Jonathan Glass of Public Journal eventually located a federal interagency repository map from May 21, the third day of the fire, containing an 18,218 acre “Indios Fire Potential Perimeter.” The fire was 688 acres on May 21st, so apparently the Forest Service planned that the fire would be expanded and contained in an area up to 26 times its size at the time. However, the agency chose to not make the size and map of this containment area reasonably publicly available, even when specifically requested. Also, the Forest Service must have believed they had justifications for expanding a wildfire during such risky fire conditions, but they did not publicly reveal them in any substantive way.

During the 2023 Pass Fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and Wilderness, the Forest Service published a map on their Facebook page of the planned fire perimeter. The fire eventually filled that perimeter with a high level of precision, with the assistance of Forest Service firing operations. That the Forest Service actually made public to what extent they wanted to expand the fire, even if they were not clear about the extent to which they were causing the landscape within the fire perimeter to burn, was possibly due to publicity by a few fire management watchdogs about the huge expansion of the 2022 Black Fire. During management of the Black Fire, the Forest Service carried out aerial and ground firing operations that more than doubled the size of the fire and burned most of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, including important natural resources, and Sierra County infrastructure.

The SFNF seems to have reversed that recent trend towards more openness, and contradicted its many recent statements about wanting better public communication, by largely obscuring their intentions to complete widespread intentional burns while managing the Indios Fire. Even after the Indios Fire operation is completed, we will almost certainly still not have any official estimate of how much of the fire the Forest Service ignited, versus how much burned due to the original ignition combined with the elements. There will simply be one number given for the size of the fire – the total acres that burned during the fire and fire expansion. We need to know what the Forest Service is doing during fire management operations so the potential risks and consequences of the agency’s wildfire management strategies can be effectively evaluated.

Language concerning fire management operations has become increasingly obscure and confusing. At first the Forest Service described progress on managing the Indios Fire as the percent of the fire contained, but after May 28 the term ”completed” was used. According to the agency, percent completion comprises a broad mix of Forest Service objectives – it’s “an indication of the total amount of work being accomplished on the ground relative to how much they intend to accomplish.” But since they never told us how much they intended to accomplish during the Indios Fire, providing the percent completed did not clarify to what extent the agency had completed expanding the fire to burn landscape within the predetermined perimeter. Below an Indios Fire briefing on the SFNF Facebook page, a bewildered local commented – “I just wish someone would tell us [how] much of the fire is being contained, how many acres are still burning? Or is the fire continuing to expand because of the completion goals?” Another asked, “What is the percentage of containment within the percentage of completion, please, since you mentioned it as a component of completion?”

All of this was occurring at the start of the New Mexico fire season, when fire risk is at its highest. There were strong winds throughout the wildfire and fire expansion operation, and a red flag warning at one point. This was very reminiscent of the conditions under which the Forest Service ignited the Las Dispensas prescribed burn, which erupted into the 2022 Hermits Peak Fire. Due to hazards from the expanded Indios Fire, the local Sheriff’s Department put a nearby ranch on “Set” status for potential evacuation.

One might hope that after the three major wildfires of 2022, ignited due to three separate SFNF escaped prescribed burns which burned a total of 387,000 acres and burned out entire communities, the Forest Service would become much more careful about putting forest and communities at risk. They do not seem to have become substantially more careful. Firing operations planned and implemented essentially on-the-spot to expand wildfires are likely much more risky than prescribed burns which are planned in advance within a NEPA-analyzed project, and also more risky than allowing a wildfire to burn without adding substantially more fire. Add in dry conditions and high winds, and this strategy just seems reckless. Given the trajectory on which the Forest Service is continuing to manage fire, it seems extremely likely that we will have more escapes of intentional fire that will over-burn forests and burn communities.

Currently, the Indios Fire operation appears to be in its final phase, at 11,500 acres. Some rain has fallen since June 8th. At least so far, the fire has burned largely at low severity, and fuels were consumed which may reduce future fire risk in the area. In terms of Forest Service objectives, it was a very successful operation. But the Forest Service is playing Russian roulette with our forests and communities by implementing large-scale intentional fires under the wildfire management umbrella, without advanced planning and in risky conditions. And, this is done without clearly informing the public of what they are doing – or even answering legitimate questions. They are sowing the seeds of even more public confusion, fear, mistrust, and anger, but most of all they are putting what we value so deeply at risk.

The Forest Service seems to be taking the viewpoint that if the rules do not say they cannot utilize a fire management strategy, such as greatly expanding wildfires with firing operations, then they can do so. In addition to a coherent and transparent national wildfire policy, there needs to be much clearer guidelines in forest plans about how fire can be “managed,” including direction that the agency cannot implement categories of actions that it is not specifically allowed to implement. It is necessary to revise forest plans so risky fire expansion operations cannot be carried out, and so there are reasonable parameters for managing naturally-ignited wildfires for resource benefit. And the agency must be required to be genuinely transparent about how fires are being managed.

Indios Fire on Firemappers – 2024-05-27 232334 May 27, 2024. Observe firing operation hot spots, carrying the fire to the south towards highway 96. Not all hot spots are firing operations; some are simply heat from the fire, but the more or less semi-straight lines of hot spots generally represent aerial ignitions.

Sarah Hyden has been working to protect the Santa Fe National Forest for well over a decade. She was a co-founder of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition and was the WildEarth Guardians’ Santa Fe National Forest Advocate. In 2019, she co-founded The Forest Advocate, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protection of the Santa Fe National Forest and all western forests. The Forest Advocate maintains an active website that publishes forest advocacy news and resources —