Top official during massive New Mexico blaze gets new post

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The supervisor of a national forest that erupted in flames earlier this year has been temporarily assigned to a post in Washington, D.C., as New Mexico looks to recover from its largest wildfire in record history and the U.S. Forest Service reviews its prescribed burn policies.

Debbie Cress will serve as acting deputy chief of staff in the office of U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. Her replacement to oversee the northern New Mexico forest was named Friday, but some have questioned the timing given that the wildfire has yet to be declared contained and recovery work has just begun.

Forest officials have dismissed criticism, saying the opportunity for Cress to work at headquarters initially came up in January and was the culmination of her work over the past year with the agency’s leadership.

Cress acknowledged in a statement Friday that it was difficult timing as her home state deals with the aftermath of the massive wildfire. But she said local, state and federal officials have a unified commitment to post-fire repairs and to meeting the needs of the communities that depend on Sangre de Cristo mountain range for firewood and water supplies.

The blaze is the result of two planned burns that were meant to clear out overgrown and dead vegetation to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Instead, hot, dry and windy conditions helped push the flames across 534 square miles (1,383 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills, destroying hundreds of homes and upending the lives of thousands of rural residents.

A recent review highlighted multiple missteps by Forest Service employees in planning for the prescribed fires, most notably a failure to fully grasp how dry conditions have become amid New Mexico’s decades-long drought.

About 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) of dozer lines were carved into mountainsides and valleys, while firefighters armed with hand tools scratched in another 176 miles (283 kilometers) in hopes of corralling the fire.

Massive quantities of fire retardant and water were dropped by planes and helicopters to protect the community of Las Vegas and other small villages, but it was really the start of the monsoon season in June that helped to slow flames that had been churning since early April.

The price tag for suppression now totals $275 million, officials told The Associated Press. Another $2.5 million is going toward road work, storm inspection, seeding, debris removal and the protection of sites considered important to residents.

Cress’ assignment in Washington will last four months. Carson National Forest Supervisor James Duran will lead the Santa Fe forest until Cress returns from her assignment.

Agency officials said such work details are common across the Forest Service and are used as both professional development and as a way to continue with agency business pending a permanent hire.

Joe Reddan, a retired ranger who used to work in northern New Mexico, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that even if Cress had been working on the assignment for months, she should have refrained from going.

“It’s not going to help her out, and it’s not going to help the credibility of the agency,” he said, noting the lessons that could be learned from what happened and how to deal with the people impacted by such catastrophic fires.

The Forest Service is in the midst of a formal review of its prescribed fire operations nationwide that was prompted by the New Mexico blaze and fire danger levels that reached historic levels this spring. All planned burns have been put on hold pending the outcome.

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