A firefighter was seriously injured when a helicopter dropped a load of water on several members of an elite team on Sunday morning as they helped contain the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak blaze.
The Vale Interagency Hotshot Crew member underwent multiple surgeries at an Albuquerque hospital to repair fractured skulls and a broken kneecap, according to a preliminary report from the Bureau of Land Management.
Two other crew members were injured but treated and released that day.
BLM spokeswoman Allison Sandoval said the incident is under investigation.
The hotshot crew was among more than 3,000 people battling the blaze, which has burned 315,838 acres and is 54% contained as of Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the US Forest Service acknowledged that the wildfire – the largest in state history – is also the largest to ever be caused by a prescribed burn.
The BLM report said the hotshot team held a section of fire line around 10:30 a.m. in the Pecos Wilderness as helicopters dropped loads of water on the edge of the blaze.
“When a helicopter missed the identified drop zone, the last load was delivered over several crew members,” the report said.
Three crew members were taken to a Santa Fe hospital before the critically injured member was flown to Albuquerque for surgery.
“The employee remains in hospital, accompanied by his family and his team leader,” the report dated Wednesday said.
Officials said crews were continuing to make progress in battling the fire.
North End Operations Section Chief Kyle Cannon said in a Wednesday evening briefing that they had gone through four days of critical fire weather with no significant fire growth. He said with the winds expected to change, crews were prioritizing the northwest end of the fire to keep the flames from approaching Peñasco.
Fire behavior analyst Dan Pearson said the fire had only covered 3,000 acres in the past four days, while a few weeks ago it was burning up to 30,000 acres per day . Then, he said, the blaze was fueled by weather conditions, with the region experiencing 29 days of critical fire weather out of 35.
“I don’t have to tell you, it was a tough time,” Pearson said.
He said now the weather has moderated and some precipitation is expected to move into the state. But not enough.
“You’re probably wondering with all this rain – will it put out the fire?” Pearson said. “Simple answer, no, it won’t.”
He said a cumulative drought has kept forests dry despite minimal rainfall. To put things into perspective, Pearson said a felled log would need to sit in a water bath for over 40 days to fully wet out.
Critical fire weather is expected to return next week and accelerate fire behavior, but he said westerly winds should prevent the fire from spreading significantly.