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...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

Captain Glenn Trehern was assigned five firefighters in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. They had wildland hand tools and went to work wherever needed. His crew used garden hoses and lawn sprinklers to wet down homes and extinguish ground fuels as Trehern did "structural triage" one house ahead of the firefighters.

"We saved dozens of houses with just garden hoses," Trehern said. "We went to one house five times. The garage door was burning, the last time we hit it with compressed air foam. As we drove around the streets it was very hard to see. Our headlights were on with the windshield wipers and you still had to drive with your head out of the window." MacDonald told the firefighters, "Don't get injured or killed in a building we can't save."

When the fire entered the townsite, utility officials turned the natural gas and electricity off. Numerous electric and telephone wires fell down and utility poles became involved in fire. Many poles burned and fell over, hampering travel for apparatus. County utility and public works crews were out clearing the streets. Transformers still became involved. Residual natural gas burned for some time from damaged gas meters, even though the main gas supply to the area had been shut down.

Firefighters were left to perform structural triage, determining which homes could be saved. In many cases, trees were hanging over structures. Brush was piled against the homes and pine needles were inches thick. A battalion chief told firefighters that they were staying to save the homes.

At one house the lawn sprinkler system was turned on and the house was saved. The fire burned right up to the wet grass. At some of the homes where water was applied, when firefighters returned an hour later the 200-foot-high approaching flames had dried out all the water that had been put on all the fuels.

Ground fire was moving through and all it took was a one-inch forestry hose to knock down the fire. At the houses that firefighters had earlier protected, once the initial fire roared over them, the crown fire stopped. The houses were wet and cool enough that they didn't catch fire - yet on the next block nothing was left of the homes. The four-inch supply hose left on the hydrant burned right up to the hydrant. Firefighters decided to make a stand three blocks away.

Chain saw crews were sent to cut and clear any timber or brush growing over a foot high that was in the immediate area. Four engines were hooked up and using their deck guns. At about the same time, the wind changed and pushed the fire to the north instead of in the direction to the east. (In one neighborhood, the fire suddenly changed direction away from a group of homes just after firefighters had cut down trees - as the homeowners returned, they asked the firefighters why they had cut down all of their trees!)

Because of the extreme wind conditions, burning embers coming from the tops of 70-80 foot high pine trees had a 100 percent chance of burning something when they landed up to a distance of three-quarters of a mile away.

If the fire was not enough to handle, the water system gave out. Over the radio, units reported that they were running out of water or had very low pressure. The electric wires to the pumps used to fill the storage tanks were burned by the fire. The water tanks were not able to be refilled until later, when utility crews worked to place the pumps back in service. Within one to two hours, portable generators were hooked up to the water pumps. After eight hours, the pumping system was back near normal, but before that firefighters were pumping more than the system could handle.

Tucker called all units in to regroup. The firefighters had been fighting the fire for 12 hours. Battalion Chief Juan Pacheco and the other battalion chiefs asked to continue the firefight, utilize all the tankers and begin tanker shuttles. Hydrants in other parts of the city and at LANL still worked because they were supplied by different storage tanks. (LANL maintained water and electricity during the entire incident.)