An ecological disaster

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It was as though Los Alamos was sitting in the sights of a gun

By The Staff

The Cerro Grande Fire — as the first major wildfire of 2000, also called the Millennium Fire — represented the first of a new type of “super” fire. At Los Alamos, even wildfires, it seems, change the tide of history.

  That such catastrophic fires — the product of an ecological disaster — would happen was, in a touch of irony, heavily researched in the low-elevation piñon and juniper and mid-elevation ponderosa pine forests of the Pajarito Plateau and the Jemez Mountains prior to the fire.

Timber experts will long study when and if to what extent Los Alamos’ fire-blistered landscape recovers from this new type of monster.

But at Los Alamos, while the minutia of what Bandelier National Monument and firefighters did wrong was a major post-disaster preoccupation, little was said about the stage upon which the catastrophe occurred.

Hints of danger manifested near town. Pyrotechnic plumes of exploding fires — 1954’s Water Canyon (that burned virtually to the edge of town), 1977’s La Mesa, 1996’s Dome and Nicole fires, the 1998 Oso Complex and others near Truchas, Santa Fe and Taos — happened often enough to seem almost normal to the uninformed, but they were anything but.

Warning turned to reality with Cerro Grande — the largest fire in New Mexico history by a factor of almost three — and even larger fires in Arizona and Colorado in 2002, fires many times larger and hotter than anything to burn such forests before. One, near Durango, Colorado, burned so apocalyptically that boats and RVs parked in a dry lakebed for safety were instead carried away by fire tornadoes.

In another touch of irony, aerial photos during the 20th century of Cerro Grande, the mountain where Bandelier lit its fateful “controlled” burn, show the forest’s dramatic — and dangerous — changes. That so much defining research was done near Los Alamos was partly coincidence. Timber expert Tom Swetnam has ties to the area. Other research was done at the U.S. Geological Survey station at Bandelier, by Los Alamos National Laboratory, by the U. S. Forest Service and, in the Jemez and elsewhere, by the universities of Arizona and Northern Arizona.

Pre-1880, low- and mid-elevation “forests” were unlike today’s forests; they were mostly savannahs. Far fewer piñon and juniper grew than today and, higher up, gigantic ponderosa pine doted the landscape at densities of only a few dozen per acre versus today’s 800 to a 1,000 often sick, stunted trees per acre that create forests some equate with gasoline awaiting a match.

Historically, fires burned every few years in the West’s ponderosa and lower-elevation forests, but these were mostly small, gentle ground fires, often ignited by summer lightning to move lazily along the forest floor until snowfall. These ground fires — not today’s sometimes deadly blowups — removed deadfall, needles and millions of young trees that sprouted from seeds in wet years, but they rarely touched large, fire-resistant older trees.

But then, the fires declined in number and effectiveness and timber densities skyrocketed.

The problem began in the 1880s with the arrival of railroads and huge numbers of livestock that grazed away the fuels the housekeeping fires needed to move along. The problem was compounded in 1911 when the Forest Service and other agencies’ began aggressive fire-suppression, while logging operations preferred big fire-resistant trees but left small trees that can become “ladder fuels” to carry fire into the forest canopy.

But something at Los Alamos was especially dangerous: the town’s location in relation to thousands of acres of sick, volatile timber.

Maps of New Mexico fires show that most burn from southwest to northeast on the prevailing wind. That the Dome Fire did not burn into town was a fluke of the wind being off prevailing; it instead burned into Bandelier.

  The Cerro Grande Fire could not have started at a worse place. It was as though Los Alamos was sitting in the sights of a gun.