The Cerro Grande Fire - Part 1

Aug. 1, 2000
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 Service fire personnel ignited a prescribed burn with an approved plan to remove the fuel load in 900 acres of the Ponderosa Pine Forest within a portion of the Bandelier National Monument that had not burned for several years.

This is located in the rugged canyon and mesa country of north-central New Mexico. Sporadic winds caused some spotting and the fire burned outside of the fire lines. The prescribed fire was declared a wildfire at 1 P.M. on May 5. The fire was named for Cerro Grande Peak, a 10,200-foot-high peak nearby.

The fire was contained on May 6 and 7, but during the late morning of May 7, winds increased significantly from the west and ultimately caused the fire to move out of control to the east in the Santa Fe National Forest. The fire was taken over by a Type 1 Incident Management Team on May 8.

Over the next several hours, the fire was carried by very high winds that gusted up to 75 mph and shifted the fire with embers blowing a mile or more over deep-forest-covered mountains and steep canyons across fire lines to the north, south and east entering Los Alamos Canyon. This led toward the County of Los Alamos and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The towns of Los Alamos and White Rock were in the fire's path and more than 18,000 people were evacuated.

By the end of the day on May 10, the fire had burned 19,527 acres, destroying hundreds of homes and many other structures. The fire spread toward LANL and, although eventually 43% of the property was burned, all major structures were spared. The fire destroyed 39 out buildings and storage trailers and eventually burned 47,525 acres over a two-week period. The fire also burned portions of private lands as well as the San Ildefonso Pueblo and the Santa Clara Pueblo (Indian reservation). It was the largest wildfire in New Mexico in recorded history, and it took 1,600 firefighters from 65 local fire departments, state and federal departments and agencies to battle the inferno.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt formed an Interagency Investigation Team on May 11 to examine the circumstances from the beginning of planning the prescribed fire until the fire was turned over to the Type 1 Incident Management Team. Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman suspended federal prescribed burning for 30 days, or longer, west of the 100th meridian.

Los Alamos National Lab

LANL is run by the University of California and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In 1942, the federal government selected the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys as the top-secret maximum-security site for the Manhattan Project, an atomic bomb research and testing program where Little Boy and Fat Man - the atomic bombs that ended World War II - were built. By 1945, when the first atomic device was detonated at a remote site at the White Sands, NM, Missile Range, more than 3,000 civilian and military personnel were working at the lab.

Today, LANL continues to apply science to issues of national security, economic strength and energy security. Its staff of over 12,500 plus 7,000 subcontractors conduct extensive research about technology associated with nuclear weapons deterrence and other defense applications, energy production, health, safety and environmental concerns, astrophysics and life sciences.

LANL encompasses 2,100 structures spread over a 43-square-mile area requiring top-secret clearance, even for firefighters. One of the structures is built to withstand the crash of a Boeing 747 jetliner. Several of the buildings contain high explosives. The fixed assets of LANL are estimated to be $8.3 billion, not including what is contained inside the structures. That value should be multiplied many times the building estimate. The annual budget for LANL is $1.4 billion. Because of the extreme national importance of the work done there and the critical resources contained within, many of the buildings are considered "defend at all costs".

After the fire, the national news media reported that computer hard drives with extremely important nuclear data had been missing since May 7 from one of the buildings at LANL. After several apparent exhaustive searches, the hard drives turned up on June 16, where others had already searched. The FBI is investigating.

A Volcanic History

A million years ago, the volcanic vents that built the Jemez Mountains issued 100 cubic miles of ash and pumice, then collapsed. The result is the Valle Grande, one of the largest measured calderas on earth. Covering 175 square miles, with a rim averaging 500 feet above its floor, it is located just west of the Bandelier National Monument where the Cerro Grande fire was started.

The area suffered two major fires within the past three decades - the La Mesa fire in 1977 and the Dome fire in 1996.

The La Mesa fire came through across the Bandelier National Monument. It burned into Los Alamos County and toward the LANL site. It started raining and the fire died down. The Dome fire burned 16,000 acres.

The current problem that affects the region is that there was no measurable snow last winter and it remains in a severe drought. The area is the driest it has been in 100 years.

At the beginning of the 20th century, forest fires began to be extinguished; that, and overgrazing by sheep, interrupted the natural evolution of the forest. A managed ponderosa pine forest should contain 50 to 150 trees per acre, depending on the size of the trees - in this area there were over 1,300 trees per acre. Small trees with shallow roots compete for the water with the large trees that have deep roots. The large trees may die off. Besides competing for water, the trees can be threatened by insect infestations.

On May 11, 2000, the U.S. Forest Service took fuel-moisture readings at the 10,000-foot level. A normal ponderosa pine forest should have a reading of 180-360 fuel moisture. A dead tree has 70. These trees had a reading of 80. About half of the trees in the area were critical, meaning that if moisture levels are too low, the trees may not recover. There is a lot of resistance to cutting down trees in the forest from citizens and environmental groups.

Apparatus & Staffing

The Los Alamos Fire Department (LAFD) is the second-largest career department in New Mexico. The department had its start in April 1943 with a small group of civilian firefighters and volunteers as part of the Manhattan Project. Six months later, military personnel relieved the department staff and volunteers. Since that time, the fire department has been replaced by a civilian force and was under the former U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) until its transfer to Los Alamos County in 1989.

Since September 1989, Los Alamos County has been the prime contractor to the DOE for the provision of fire, rescue and emergency medical services for the Incorporated City/County of Los Alamos. The community has a population of 18,000 and supplemented by over 10,000 daily commuters. In June 1997, the DOE elected to have oversight of the fire department services handled by the University of California.

Under the command of Fire Chief Douglas R. MacDonald, 120 firefighters operate one battalion consisting of six engines, one truck, four tankers, five compressed air foam (CAF) mini-tankers/grass fire units and five medic units from five stations. They also protect a small airport. All telephone and automatic alarms are received by LANL personnel. The information is then transferred to the fire department for unit dispatch. Staffing for engines is three, with four on the truck company and two on the medic units.

Most of the homes were built between 1947 and 1952 as temporary housing for LANL workers. Many of the homes were four-family wood-frame structures with flat roofs and ignitable siding materials. Others were metal clad, while still others had pitched roofs with shingles. There are about 4,600 structures within the town site. The average price for a house is $195,000. About 80% of the homes do not meet building codes. Built on top of steep mesas, it is impossible to travel from one portion of the city to another portion or to the lab site without crossing bridges to reach another section of mesa.

The water supply for the town and LANL site is contained in several storage tanks containing 43 million gallons. Several aboveground tanks take supply from wells. Water is pumped into the storage tanks and distributed to the water main system. Plans to install an additional storage tank to increase the supply had been delayed two years because of a resident's lawsuit against the county; the tank is now under construction.

The Forest Service had previously said that if a fire started in the area west of Los Alamos, the prevailing winds would push the fire toward the town/lab site and estimated that about 60% of the town would be lost.

Off-Duty Staff Recalled

The LAFD is divided into three shifts - 24 hours on and 48 hours off. When the fire spotted into Frijoles Canyon, that was the trigger for the entire department to be recalled. Firefighters were divided into day and night operations.

Dump tanks were prepared for helicopter operations at an eastern location site on LANL property. Units supported crash fire rescue operations at the heli-spot. As the fire progressed west of the town, Los Alamos firefighters were assembled by task forces in various areas. Each task force was made up of a leader, firefighters with wildland capabilities, structural protection and a medic with a battalion chief in charge. Six task forces were assembled. An adaptive response task force was made so it could go quickly where needed. The 2,000-gallon compressed air foam tanker was assigned to this group. Task Force 2 was assigned radio channel 2. Each of five task forces was assigned in a similar way. Fire-Tac was established in a battalion chief's office and took over the deployment of fire department resources. The task force assigned to the LANL area consisted of three mini-tankers, three tankers and an engine company.

Firefighter Brian Martinez recalled that on Sunday morning, "the smoke plume in the distance a was 100 times larger than the day before." It was raining embers on the area near LANL. Heavy smoke blanketed the area. Sometimes, the smoke rose straight up; at other times, the wind caused the smoke to hang low to the ground.

Some nearby departments had responded on mutual aid and were initially staged at Fire Station 6 near the airport and entrance to town from the east . Other mutual aid agencies were asked what apparatus or manpower they could send if needed. Additional EMS units were staged at Station 6 in case of an evacuation of the 54-bed Los Alamos Medical Center.

Although New Mexico is one of the largest states in area within the country, it has only two million residents. Because of the mountainous and rural terrain in the state, many fire departments are located a distance from one another. Responses for assistance would take some time.

Only LAFD firefighters were allowed onto the LANL property because of security clearance. After Wednesday, this changed as the demand for units dictated the need for mutual aid units to assist the LAFD on lab property. LAFD crews patrolled the technical areas consisting of numerous buildings inside the LANL property. This area had paved and unpaved roads. Sometimes, firefighters had to make their own roads. Forest Service employees worked on the fire in the forest on the west side of Route 501. LAFD firefighters encountered numerous spot fires, the largest being 100 feet long and 100 feet wide. Smaller fires were extinguished as they were found.

LAFD units continued to constantly patrol as Forest Service crews conducted back burns where possible. Mini-tankers were used to wet down the low-level fuels. Buffalo tankers holding thousands of gallons of water from the lab site were used to wet the vegetation and fuels near the side of the road from side-mounted turrets. This helped firefighters who were stretched thin protecting several miles of the LANL property.

Compressed air foam was used to wet low-level fuels, grass, trees, buildings and telephone poles in the area. One firefighter said it looked like Christmas, everything was white with foam. Because of the wind and the low relative humidity, the foam coating would last about 90 minutes. If firefighters pre-treated the area again, the foam could last up to four hours. Helicopters making water drops on the main body of fire made drops when requested by ground units. If a helicopter crew observed an unreported fire started from burning embers falling on the LANL property, it would make a drop on the fire.

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.


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.

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.

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.)

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."


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