Editor's note: This incident was so complex and exposed such critical national resources that the background information is reported on a far greater scale than would be for a typical wildfire. This was far from a typical wildfire. In the late evening of Thursday, May 4, 2000, National Park...
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In the late evening of Thursday, May 4, 2000, National Park Service fire personnel ignited a prescribed burn with an approved plan to remove the fuel load in 900 acres of the Ponderosa Pine Forest within a portion of the Bandelier National Monument that had not burned for several years.
This is located in the rugged canyon and mesa country of north-central New Mexico. Sporadic winds caused some spotting and the fire burned outside of the fire lines. The prescribed fire was declared a wildfire at 1 P.M. on May 5. The fire was named for Cerro Grande Peak, a 10,200-foot-high peak nearby.
The fire was contained on May 6 and 7, but during the late morning of May 7, winds increased significantly from the west and ultimately caused the fire to move out of control to the east in the Santa Fe National Forest. The fire was taken over by a Type 1 Incident Management Team on May 8.
Over the next several hours, the fire was carried by very high winds that gusted up to 75 mph and shifted the fire with embers blowing a mile or more over deep-forest-covered mountains and steep canyons across fire lines to the north, south and east entering Los Alamos Canyon. This led toward the County of Los Alamos and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The towns of Los Alamos and White Rock were in the fire's path and more than 18,000 people were evacuated.
By the end of the day on May 10, the fire had burned 19,527 acres, destroying hundreds of homes and many other structures. The fire spread toward LANL and, although eventually 43% of the property was burned, all major structures were spared. The fire destroyed 39 out buildings and storage trailers and eventually burned 47,525 acres over a two-week period. The fire also burned portions of private lands as well as the San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Santa Clara Pueblo (Indian reservation). It was the largest wildfire in New Mexico in recorded history, and it took 1,600 firefighters from 65 local fire departments, state and federal departments and agencies to battle the inferno.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt formed an Interagency Investigation Team on May 11 to examine the circumstances from the beginning of planning the prescribed fire until the fire was turned over to the Type 1 Incident Management Team. Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman suspended federal prescribed burning for 30 days, or longer, west of the 100th meridian.
Los Alamos National Lab
LANL is run by the University of California and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In 1942, the federal government selected the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys as the top-secret maximum-security site for the Manhattan Project, an atomic bomb research and testing program where Little Boy and Fat Man - the atomic bombs that ended World War II - were built. By 1945, when the first atomic device was detonated at a remote site at the White Sands, NM, Missile Range, more than 3,000 civilian and military personnel were working at the lab.
Today, LANL continues to apply science to issues of national security, economic strength and energy security. Its staff of over 12,500 plus 7,000 subcontractors conduct extensive research about technology associated with nuclear weapons deterrence and other defense applications, energy production, health, safety and environmental concerns, astrophysics and life sciences.
LANL encompasses 2,100 structures spread over a 43-square-mile area requiring top-secret clearance, even for firefighters. One of the structures is built to withstand the crash of a Boeing 747 jetliner. Several of the buildings contain high explosives. The fixed assets of LANL are estimated to be $8.3 billion, not including what is contained inside the structures. That value should be multiplied many times the building estimate. The annual budget for LANL is $1.4 billion. Because of the extreme national importance of the work done there and the critical resources contained within, many of the buildings are considered "defend at all costs".