New Mexico residents sue for information on massive wildfire

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Dozens of residents in a small New Mexico community impacted by massive wildfires that merged in April are suing the U.S. Forest Service over what they called a failure to provide information about the government’s role in starting the blazes.

The Forest Service has acknowledged that two prescribed burns it set to clear out brush and small trees that can serve as wildfire fuel sparked two blazes that came together as the largest in New Mexico’s recorded history and the biggest burning in the U.S. right now.

The wildfire has charred 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers) in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which sits at the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Several hundred homes have been destroyed.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on behalf of 50 Mora County residents, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

It asks the court to declare that the Forest Service improperly withheld planning documents for the burns, agreements or contracts with anyone who helped carry out the burns and information on the rules and regulations that govern the prescribed burns.

Without the information, the lawsuit alleges, the residents “cannot determine the Forest Service’s responsibility — other than media accounts — for starting the fire.”

The Forest Service told the Santa Fe New Mexican that it does not comment on pending litigation. The agency has said unexpected, erratic winds during one prescribed burn carried embers outside the targeted area. The other wildfire emerged from a burn set on a pile of dead vegetation in January that smoldered for weeks, even under snow.

The agency has put a hold on prescribed burns nationwide pending its own investigation.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit New Mexico on Saturday for a briefing about the wildfires and recovery efforts.

Another wildfire in southwestern New Mexico has burned 466 square miles (1,206 square kilometers), prompting New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare an emergency for Sierra County on Friday.

The declaration came as the fire grew to become the second largest wildfire in state history. The governor’s office said it’s now burning beyond the boundaries of the Gila National Forest, affecting communities and requiring evacuations.

Also Friday, crews of about 200 firefighters were scrambling to try and contain a small fire in northern New Mexico near El Rito that sent up a tall, dense plume of smoke. No structures were threatened, with the cause under investigation.

In northern New Mexico, Mora County residents said they requested documents from the Forest Service on May 4 about the fire in northern New Mexico, but that the agency failed to respond within 20 working days as required under the law. The lawsuit also seeks attorneys’ fees.

Herman Lujan, 80, his brother and nephew are among the Mora County residents who are suing. Lujan’s home was spared, but he said he has 30 hungry cattle that he might have to sell because they can’t graze in a burned pasture his family has used for generations.

“Everything burned,” he said. “Timber, everything. I even had an old dozer up there to make ponds for the cows, and everything burned.”