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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Battalion Chief Wilfred Martinez had five units manned by 20 personnel. He watched the fire spread from the southwest with incredible speed. With the smoke on the horizon, Martinez recalled thinking "It's going to be a significant situation if the fire gets into Los Alamos Canyon."

With the fuel loading in the canyon, the town is situated among the trees, as are most of the technical areas of the lab. Numerous spot fires were burning on lab property. Some were 20 feet by 20 feet, some were 30 feet by 30 feet, all burning the low-level fuels and vegetation. The largest fire was about one acre in size. During the evening, the fire would calm down and units on patrol didn't fight many spot fires.

Evacuations

On Sunday, it was determined to voluntarily evacuate the southwest portion of the city of Los Alamos. The police chief had estimated it would take 121/2 hours under good conditions to evacuate the entire city; many people had realized the threat and already left on their own.

Over the next two days, numerous spot fires were fought and extinguished. Forest Service Management teams planned and deployed helicopters, slurry dropping bombers and Hot Shot hand crews in various areas around the fire. One of the large Erickson helicopters used a nearby reservoir when conditions allowed to refill the water tank (normally a 2,000-gallon load, but due to the altitude 1,000 gallons) aboard the chopper.

The slurry bombers had to land and refill in Albuquerque, about 60 miles away. C-130 aircraft could carry 15,000 gallons of slurry, which can be discharged in under five seconds covering an area a quarter mile long and 60 feet wide. They would then fly back to Los Alamos. They dropped their pink-colored slurry when directed by Forest Service personnel or by task force leaders via Fire-Tac, located in Station 1.

The fire activity on Tuesday was twice as bad as it was in the two previous days. Bulldozers were used to cut fire lines. When a fire line was cut, it was made twice the size of the bulldozer blade. A fire line was then up to 24 feet wide. Hot Shot crews cut fire lines, a couple of them 30 feet wide. During the height of the fire, because of tremendous flame lengths, in some areas the fire jumped three of five fire lines cut.

The decision to close the LANL made a big difference on the evacuation when it became mandatory. Over 7,000 workers who were not at the lab made the evacuation go much smoother. A seldom-used alternate road from the northeast section of the city was opened through Indian land. The dirt road was graded to allow a less bumpy, faster ride to speed the evacuation.

MacDonald worked from the Emergency Operations Center at LANL and Deputy Chief Doug Tucker worked from the Type 1 Wildland Command Post and the LAFD Tactical Operations Center. The key decision makers from LANL met and the Los Alamos County EOC was activated.

"Because of the high-profile National Lab, the rules change," MacDonald said. The chief spoke to the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the White House. Fire officials were in touch with the State Fire Marshal's Office to request resources to the scene. The state EOC in Santa Fe coordinated resources to the scene. Local, state and presidential disaster proclamations were signed.

Firefighters responding on mutual aid had only structural firefighting gear, so wildland gear was issued to many of them. This included personal protective equipment, water, fire shelters, flashlights, gloves and hoods. The Forest Service responded with an overhead team of 30 to 35 people who set up a tent city for their Incident Management Team. This also included a caterer. They set up their operations into two teams, one day and the other night.

Lab Property Hit Hard

The fire eventually hit the LANL property hard. Firefighters tried to make a stand with the Forest Service helping out. In one steep ravine firefighters discovered a small plume of smoke. The fire extended to a scrub oak tree, the wind blew the fire against the canyon and the fire took off like a tornado. The fire ran over the area and firefighters retreated back to a safe point at Station 5. Stationary deck guns were left trained on the lab buildings, keeping them wet and cool.