Cerro Grande fire: 1992 to 2010

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By Jody Benson

When 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 decided to work to mitigate the imminent danger posed by the overcrowded forest.

In 1994, Los Alamos held an Interagency Fire Symposium. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service attempted a controlled burn around Western Area, but the community wasn’t ready.  People complained about the smoke and cutting down trees.

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 initiated a thinning project on the Pueblo Canyon Shelf.  ”When the Cerro Grande fire blew across Diamond and into the Canyon,” Chief Mac said, “the crowning stopped and the fire dropped to the ground.  This thinning probably saved the community east of Diamond.”

In 1996, 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 EM job moved to the police department.  Chief Alan Kirk assigned the job to Robert Repass, who 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 was wildfire, with the question not “if” but “when.”  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.  

The emergency plan had to state whether to evacuate or shelter in place. Bill Armstrong’s fire report talked about crowning fires, and the deadliness of sheltering in place. Even though evacuation is problematic with so few roads in and out of Los Alamos, the study helped prepare for the smooth evacuation which occurred in 2000 when, with the Cerro Grande Fire crowning in the high winds and roaring toward town, the OEM made the decision to evacuate.

In 1999, with the state’s financial resources and LANL’s excellent emergency management program, the county worked with other agencies on an interagency emergency exercise.  The exercise aimed at preparing for Y2K, not a wildfire.  Even though the anticipated Y2K problems did not occur, the exercise was valuable preparation for the wildfire that did eventually occur.

Tom Gorman, spokesman for the NM Office of Emergency Management, and the State Emergency Operations team made the call to activate the emergency center when Cerro Grande hit. Gorman became the public information officer to consolidate information coming in from Robert 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 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.”

On Evacuation Day, both Councilor Robert 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,” Gibson said.  “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.”  The federal government took full responsibility for the fire, and the FEMA activities were well managed by the director, James Lee Witt, who had eight years of experience in disaster management before his appointment.

The Cerro Grande Fire had a huge emotional and economic impact on our community.  However, the emergency planning and preparations before the fire and the Federal assistance in recovery significantly mitigated what could have been a much worse disaster.