The Cerro Grande Fire - Part 1

Harvey Eisner describes the massive effort to control a wildland fire that threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.


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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The water supply for the town and LANL site is contained in several storage tanks containing 43 million gallons. Several aboveground tanks take supply from wells. Water is pumped into the storage tanks and distributed to the water main system. Plans to install an additional storage tank to increase the supply had been delayed two years because of a resident's lawsuit against the county; the tank is now under construction.

The Forest Service had previously said that if a fire started in the area west of Los Alamos, the prevailing winds would push the fire toward the town/lab site and estimated that about 60% of the town would be lost.

Off-Duty Staff Recalled

The LAFD is divided into three shifts - 24 hours on and 48 hours off. When the fire spotted into Frijoles Canyon, that was the trigger for the entire department to be recalled. Firefighters were divided into day and night operations.

Dump tanks were prepared for helicopter operations at an eastern location site on LANL property. Units supported crash fire rescue operations at the heli-spot. As the fire progressed west of the town, Los Alamos firefighters were assembled by task forces in various areas. Each task force was made up of a leader, firefighters with wildland capabilities, structural protection and a medic with a battalion chief in charge. Six task forces were assembled. An adaptive response task force was made so it could go quickly where needed. The 2,000-gallon compressed air foam tanker was assigned to this group. Task Force 2 was assigned radio channel 2. Each of five task forces was assigned in a similar way. Fire-Tac was established in a battalion chief's office and took over the deployment of fire department resources. The task force assigned to the LANL area consisted of three mini-tankers, three tankers and an engine company.

Firefighter Brian Martinez recalled that on Sunday morning, "the smoke plume in the distance a was 100 times larger than the day before." It was raining embers on the area near LANL. Heavy smoke blanketed the area. Sometimes, the smoke rose straight up; at other times, the wind caused the smoke to hang low to the ground.

Some nearby departments had responded on mutual aid and were initially staged at Fire Station 6 near the airport and entrance to town from the east . Other mutual aid agencies were asked what apparatus or manpower they could send if needed. Additional EMS units were staged at Station 6 in case of an evacuation of the 54-bed Los Alamos Medical Center.

Although New Mexico is one of the largest states in area within the country, it has only two million residents. Because of the mountainous and rural terrain in the state, many fire departments are located a distance from one another. Responses for assistance would take some time.

Only LAFD firefighters were allowed onto the LANL property because of security clearance. After Wednesday, this changed as the demand for units dictated the need for mutual aid units to assist the LAFD on lab property. LAFD crews patrolled the technical areas consisting of numerous buildings inside the LANL property. This area had paved and unpaved roads. Sometimes, firefighters had to make their own roads. Forest Service employees worked on the fire in the forest on the west side of Route 501. LAFD firefighters encountered numerous spot fires, the largest being 100 feet long and 100 feet wide. Smaller fires were extinguished as they were found.

LAFD units continued to constantly patrol as Forest Service crews conducted back burns where possible. Mini-tankers were used to wet down the low-level fuels. Buffalo tankers holding thousands of gallons of water from the lab site were used to wet the vegetation and fuels near the side of the road from side-mounted turrets. This helped firefighters who were stretched thin protecting several miles of the LANL property.

Compressed air foam was used to wet low-level fuels, grass, trees, buildings and telephone poles in the area. One firefighter said it looked like Christmas, everything was white with foam. Because of the wind and the low relative humidity, the foam coating would last about 90 minutes. If firefighters pre-treated the area again, the foam could last up to four hours. Helicopters making water drops on the main body of fire made drops when requested by ground units. If a helicopter crew observed an unreported fire started from burning embers falling on the LANL property, it would make a drop on the fire.