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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When firefighters were patrolling a neighborhood and saw a well-involved house on fire, they would protect the exposure, trying to cool the house. Because of the limited water supply, smaller hose such as one-inch and 13/4-inch was used to conserve water. Requests were made for the 2,000-gallon compressed air foam tanker. All of the CAF mini-tankers were protecting the high-explosives building on LANL property. Foam was applied and many times another mutual aid department was left on the street to protect the exposures. Additional mutual aid arriving from across the region was relocated to a large parking lot across from Station 1.

The fire also threatened the community of White Rock, two miles to the southeast. Many people from Los Alamos had taken shelter there, and now they had to be evacuated again. High winds sustained at 50 mph and gusting to 75 mph canceled any further air operations with helicopters and slurry bombers until the winds died down.

All LANL buildings were locked and sealed. The LANL EOC was threatened, as the approaching fire was burning across a steep canyon toward the EOC. Several personnel were relocated to a secondary EOC; a skeleton EOC crew remained with MacDonald and rode out the encroaching fire storm. The fire burned up to the EOC, but it survived with no involvement. Although the fire burned 43% of the LANL property, no major buildings with mission-critical national resources were involved. Some of the buildings had trees adjacent to the buildings while others did not. If some of the buildings containing chemicals or explosives were to catch fire, LANL officials advised firefighters to remain 2,500 feet away. The fire did burn 39 trailers and out buildings. Many of these trailers were located near the edge of steep canyons surrounded by vegetation.

There were crews in utility vehicles passing out sandwiches. Other agencies were handing out food. The American Red Cross handed out food, water, aspirin and Band-Aids. Every fire station was a safe point for firefighting crews. The Forest Service had hot meals prepared each night. One firefighter noted, "We went from starving to death, fighting to get a sack lunch the first day eating military meals ready to eat (MRE), then we received so many donations we had so much food we didn't know what to do with it. Somebody was going to make up a T-shirt. We lost five pounds the first few days and gained 10 pounds during the last week. Firefighters' wives and retired firefighters came to the stations to help out."

Tucker recalled, "It was pretty devastating that night. We knew we lost at least 100 homes. The next day, it was a whole different view. The firefighters did a lot more than they thought they did. They stopped the fire from burning this house, they saved that house. The effort, emotion, pure adrenaline and courage allowed firefighters to save what they did. A lot of firefighters worked real hard and stuck it out. There was a lot of camaraderie among the various firefighters from across the region."