The Cerro Grande Fire - Part 2

Aug. 1, 2000
Harvey Eisner describes the massive effort to control a wildland fire that threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
On Fire Patrol

Firefighters continued to patrol the neighborhoods and lab site. Rekindles involving foundations and tree stumps were extinguished for five days. On Thursday and Friday, the fire made major runs on LANL property. Explosions from houses were common. Stored small arms ammunition and aerosol cans exploded for hours from some locations. The remains of one vehicle had five propane tanks inside.

Driver Engineer Dean Stroope lost his house to the fire. He didn't even know it until the next day. Firefighters working with him never once heard him say, let's go check my house, can we go save it.

A police officer resting for a few hours at home was alerted by a police dispatcher by phone. The dispatcher told the officer that the fire is by your back door. He jumped up, looked out his window, put on his uniform and pistol belt and got out just in time.

During the height of the fire, the 16-channel trunked radio system went out of service. Operations were switched to a backup five-channel system. Out-of-town units used LAFD radios or operated on a statewide radio channel. Mechanics from Johnston Controls of New Mexico, a LANL subcontractor, were invaluable in servicing fire apparatus damaged during the fire. Drivelines, pumps and radiators were fixed in record time so apparatus could be put back into the firefight.

At one point, the smoke was so thick that Station 4 was evacuated for a short time. Many state and federal officials drove through extremely low visibility to get to the EOC for briefings. Completely engulfed in smoke, firefighters working in the area were almost struck and the road had to be totally shut down. A small fire broke out in a deep, very steep canyon located right behind Station 1. An available engine company dumped the entire contents of its 500-gallon water tank on the rapidly growing fire, left, refilled the water tank and dumped another 500 gallons on the fire to extinguish it.

One firefighter suffered a broken ankle, another a dislocated shoulder and a Forest Service worker suffered a severe eye injury. Because of the unknown potential of chemicals dumped in the woods over many years at the lab site, firefighters operating in the area and breathing the smoke and what was in it underwent medical tests to establish a baseline for evaluation. Each year, during future annual physical tests results will be analyzed. Firefighters described the fire as a potential mankiller, with the amount of fuel and the high winds - it was a once-in-a-career-type fire.

Battalion Chief Martinez talked about accountability: "In a building fire you think about square feet. In a wildland incident you have to measure accountability in square miles. The reason no one got seriously hurt is the overall concern for firefighter safety." Each task force leader obtained Personnel Accountability Reports (PARs) continually during the fire.

It is estimated that 37 million trees were destroyed in the fire. Within two to five , all of the dead trees will fall over naturally. This will add to the fact that 80% of the forest surrounding Los Alamos remains unburned, but highly stressed. This additional dead fuel will only add to the future problems. In the weeks following the fire, flash flooding was the main concern. The fire destroyed the soil, so land rehabilitation is now the top priority.

Lessons Learned

  • Plans are being developed to adopt current fire prevention and wildland building codes to deal with the extreme classification of the area. Forty-three families displaced by the fire were moved into a temporary mobile home park. It will eventually contain 114 mobile homes to fill a gap in the available rental property.
  • Fire departments learned to be specific when making requests for mutual aid. Some departments could not afford to send apparatus, only manpower. What wound up being needed after the water system went down was water carrying apparatus of any kind.
  • Fire officials must be successful before the fire in selling the public on building defensible space.
  • The need for protecting the power supply for the water system is obvious.
  • Compressed air foam units were able to defend multiple houses and pre-treat entire streets.

Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is a must for firefighters, support staff and wives. Firefighters have limits. You can't make miracles.

Although some thinning of the forest was done outside the city and some areas within the city and lab site, as one firefighter put it, "$500,000 in prevention would have saved billions of dollars in rehabilitation."

The final statistics were:

  • 14 days
  • 1,600 firefighters
  • 65 New Mexico departments and agencies
  • 10 helicopters
  • Six slurry bombers
  • 900 five-gallon containers of Class A foam
  • 43% of LANL property burned
  • 237 structures destroyed and 38 others damaged in Los Alamos
  • 145 houses directly saved by firefighting efforts
  • 402 families were left homeless
  • 4,600 structures in the city
  • 60% of the city projected to be involved, but only 6% was involved.
  • $1 billion in damage

So far this year, 607 wildfires have occurred in New Mexico, burning 298,541 acres. By comparison, for all of 1994, there were 2,730 fires that consumed 409,246 acres.


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