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Cerro Grande Fire 17 years later

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BY JODY BENSON
Pajarito Group Sierra Club

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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.

Not until 1993, after LANL, DOE and the county “cleaned house,” was there any communication among agencies.  
In 1994, Los Alamos held an Interagency Fire Symposium. In 1995, (at the beginning of the current drying cycle) the U.S. Forest Service attempted a controlled burn around Western Area. “But,” said MacDonald, “the community wasn’t ready.  People complained about the smoke and cutting down trees. This community loves its trees.”

Former Fire Chief Tucker started building an interagency plan. In ’96 the Dome Fire hit, burning beyond Bandelier past Dome Lookout. In ’98, the Oso Fire came in from the Santa Clara side. With these red flags, the USFS, Craig Allen, John Hogan, and local volunteers initiated a thinning project on the Pueblo Canyon Shelf. 

“When the fire blew across Diamond and into the Canyon,” said Chief Mac, “the crowning stopped and the fire dropped to the ground.  This thinning probably saved the community east of Diamond.”

Robert Gibson got to Los Alamos in 1979, after La Mesa Fire. In ‘96, (the year of the Dome fire) Gibson had begun his first run for County Council. He heard Craig Allen’s talk on fire ecology, how natural, healthy-forest-creating fire had been suppressed for a century, and that in these unhealthy forest conditions, fire intensity could be catastrophic. At the same time, Bill Armstrong, a forester with the Santa Fe National Forrest, predicted our forest conditions would create “a very large, very intense crowning fire.”

Early in 1999, the county recognized the need to reduce the potential of catastrophic fire. It decided to spend money for forest thinning, but the proposal had to go first to public comment. 

“Los Alamos loves their trees,” Gibson reiterated, “and we couldn’t get any neighborhood to undertake a thinning project. The project did go forward in summer to October of 1999,” the same Pueblo Shelf project that saved the neighborhoods.

Councilor Lawry Mann and Gibson went to a tabletop scenario planning session where the scenario fire started southwest of town. One question was whether to evacuate or shelter in place. At that time, they decided not to use Rendija to avoid the potential of a break-down blocking traffic in the canyon. On May 10, Evacuation Day, however, managers knew the road had been graded and the gate opened, and they sent residents of the outlying mesas down Rendija.

On Evacuation Day, both Gibson and Representative Jeanette Wallace  were heading to Washington, D.C. on a planned trip to talk about the proposed Valles Caldera purchase. Rather than cancel the trip, they went on to Washington.  
“It helped to have county officials in Washington who knew what was going on,” said Gibson. “Even before the fire was over we were able to talk to our Congressional Delegation about the many things facing the County... There would be a lot of work to do after the event was over.”

Robert Repass worked in the Los Alamos police department in 1996 when FEMA began funding towns to start an Office of Emergency Management (OEM). Los Alamos took the offer and created the OEM as a half time job. In 1997, the Emergency Manager job moved to the police department. Chief Kirk assigned the job to Repass.

Repass inherited a bunch of incomplete hazard plans and minutes from planning meetings, out of which he was to develop a plan to deal with emergency situations. The first task was to undertake a hazards analysis. Number one, wildfire with the question not “if” but “when.” No. 2? Winter storms with the loss of power – in Y2K this scenario turned out to be the dress rehearsal for Cerro Grande.

LAPD coordinated the local emergency planning (EP) committee that included the police and fire departments, LANL, County utilities, the hospital, Ham radio operators, and the Red Cross. First, get the plan in place, then get good training that could be applicable to all emergencies. Ninety percent of the planning was spent struggling to get ready for wildfire.

With the State’s financial resources and LANL’s excellent emergency management program, the county worked with other agencies on an interagency emergency exercise.

Preparing for Y2K, however, sidelined wildfire. Anybody remember the doomsday scenario of 1999? When the 19 turned to 20, all computer s would fail: utilities would shut down; fire trucks wouldn’t start; communications would cut off. The county prepared for Y2K as for Scenario 2 – the winter storm. However, by the time Y2K hit Asia, people knew it was a bust. Still, says Repass, even though it took effort away from planning for fire, it turned out to be a valuable exercise.

The EP had to state whether to evacuate or shelter in place. Bill Armstrong’s fire report emphasized crowning fires, and the deadliness of sheltering in place. Evacuation is problematic with so few roads in and out of Los Alamos. Which roads should be opened or closed? Should both lanes be one-way only for the exit? Should we open Rendija? In the end with the Cerro Grande Fire crowning in the high winds and roaring toward town, the OEM made the decision to evacuate.

Tom Gorman, spokesman for the New Mexico Office of Emergency Management, attended the April 2000 Emergency Mangement meeting where he heard Bill Armstrong’s warnings about an impending fire.

When Cerro Grande hit, Gorman and the State Emergency Operations made the call to activate the emergency center, Tom became the public information officer to consolidate information coming in from Repass. Forces from surrounding areas came, not only to fight the fire, but (like the National Guard, Red Cross, and State Police) to help coordinate operations and ensure resources were available in the region.

Gorman said one important lesson (not yet resolved) is that while shelters became operational, the Red Cross would not let people bring pets. Many left their pets at home. Among those who braved the fire to rescue pets were the National Guard, cattle and horse people with trailers, the police, and Animal Planet. 

Gorman said, “It was hard to capture the pets and get them out. That was a tragedy of the fire. Too many people lost pets.”

Even though, as, NM Governor Johnson said “Cerro Grande was like getting hit with an 18-wheeler.”  The Feds took full responsibility for it.

In 2000, James Lee Witt headed FEMA.“Finally,” Gorman said, “somebody got it right. Previously, the Director of FEMA was just an appointment. Witt had eight years of experience (in disaster management). After 9-11 FEMA was stepped down in the priority scale. Had Cerro Grande happened later, there would’ve been a bad outcome.”

As it happened, then governor of New Mexico, Gov. Gary Johnson, said Cerro Grande was like getting hit with an 18-wheeler. “The Feds took full responsibility for it.” 

It would be a long time with insurance and FEMA, with BEAR, siting FEMAville, undergrounding utilities, rebuilding homes and the infrastructure – it was a long time of frustration, gratitude, anger, grief, community unity, and wonder. But because of foresight, the use of a scientific, data-driven model of communication, and planning, and cooperation, Cerro Grande was a (probably the last) well-run disaster.

The nation could learn from the example of Los Alamos.