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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Once the fire entered Los Alamos Canyon, firefighters knew it would only be a few hours before the fire would hit the town.

Task forces were deployed within the city to defend against the rapidly spreading fire. Firefighters were operating 30 to 40 yards behind houses on Trinity Drive, knocking down spot fires with every hoseline they had on the apparatus. Two engines, two tankers and the ladder truck were pre-treating the houses in the area for about 45 minutes.

Captain Sean Wisecarver recalled, "I was running the pump on a tanker. A few guys came running up to me, yelling run, run, run! I said I have to roll up my hose. They said to hell with the hose, run. I kept rolling up the hose. A captain and an engineer grabbed me and said you've got to go."

The noise the fire made sounded like a cross between a freight train and a tornado, or like a jet airplane engine winding up. One firefighter looked up and saw the fire coming through as a crown fire. Seeing other firefighters, he said, "When I saw the look in their eyes, I never looked back." The ladder truck crew watched the fire come through right in front of them. Several pieces of apparatus were trying to maneuver out of the fire's path.

One firefighter jumped into a tanker and saw the fire coming at him. He decided that the other trucks weren't moving fast enough, so he jumped off the tanker and ran cross-country through several backyards to escape the fire. The last time anyone saw the tanker, flames as high as a two-story house were rolling over it. One firefighter compared the approaching fire to a huge tidal wave. The fire came up and over the houses, crossed the road and burned the homes on the other side of the street.

One person left before the fire hit and returned home 20 minutes later to retrieve a forgotten item, only to find the fire entering the neighborhood. Another resident left reluctantly only when the fire was getting very close to his home. As the fire approached the city, and firefighters were preparing to defend the area, several residents appeared from their homes. These people had not left during the evacuation and firefighters had to take precious time to escort them from the area as the fire bore down on the city.

In some areas firefighters saw so many people still around their homes that they used the public-address microphones on the rigs to notify them that their safety was in jeopardy. The hospital began an evacuation when the fire hit the townsite. Firefighters from Station 6 near the airport had to stand by making sure the main road in and out of town was kept open.

Several motor vehicle accidents occurred during the evacuation. The fire was crowning in the tops of trees. The smoke was lying down and there was a red, red sky. Many people took one of their vehicles and left others at their residence. This was beneficial to the evacuation with less traffic to contend with. After the fire these people were not so lucky. Among the unique vehicles left behind were a Lexus, a Camaro convertible, a 1957 Chevy and several large motor homes, all left behind to be destroyed by the flames. One aluminum engine block was melted.

Firefighters were redirected to the high school field where they regrouped, checked on unit accountability, injuries and strategy. There had been a report of a missing firefighter. It took quite a while to account for all firefighters. It was confirmed that no one was missing. Firefighters returned to Trinity Drive and found the tanker still running, just scorched. About 1,000 feet of various sizes of hose were burned when the firefighters had left the area earlier.

The fire was now burning numerous houses. There was so much smoke that it looked like 8 o'clock at night instead of 4 in the afternoon. Heavy timber woods were located behind many dwellings. Shrubs and heavy ground fuels were situated right against the backs of the homes. Some homes had wood decks and wooden fencing. On some streets, yards had so much vegetation the dwellings were almost invisible from the street. The 50-year-old "temporary" housing had flat tar and gravel roofs. The typical roof had quarter-inch plywood decking, open spots in the gravel, large single pane windows and combustible shake siding. Some embers are believed to have entered open windows.