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Monitor File Photo
A house is left badly damaged following the Cerro Grande Fire in May 2000.
Cerro Grande Fire 17 years later

BY JODY BENSON
Pajarito Group Sierra Club

Seventeen years ago, May 18, 2000, a New Mexico National Guardsman at the bottom of the Main Hill Road saluted the Cerro Grande evacuees who were heading home to Los Alamos. 

The Jemez Mountains to the northwest still burned, smoke still hovered over Pajarito, and police and the National Guard prevented all but the residents to enter the neighborhoods incinerated at the urban/forest interface.

As a disaster, Cerro Grande was well-run, and the efficiency was due in large part not only to the “national importance of LANL” and the (only ever) admission of guilt by the federal government, but to the emergency management planning that had begun back in 1992.

When then Fire Chief Douglass MacDonald came to Los Alamos in December 1992 what he noticed first was the dangerous wilderness/urban interface that surrounded The Hill.

Having come from a wildlands fire background, he made two decisions – to live in White Rock, and to inform people of the imminent danger posed by the overcrowded forest growing up to people’s back doors.

We had forgotten the proximity of La Mesa Fire in 1977 – the past 15 years were wet. But MacDonald remembered the urban-interface fires in Southern California, and the1988 Yellowstone Fire.

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