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Nearly every home and business in town was vacant during the eight-day evacuation sparked by the Las Conchas Fire – yet every returning resident found their property intact.
Los Alamos police kept a constant eye on the community during the evacuation, Chief Wayne Torpy said. The officers worked around the clock patrolling neighborhoods, street by street, questioning anyone they encountered. He was stopped a couple of times when driving his personal vehicle.
During an interview on the Safety and Security Matters program broadcast July 20 on KRSN, Torpy spoke about his department’s crime control efforts during the fire.
“Any people who drove around were stopped frequently,” Torpy said. “We kept a list of the people and their telephone numbers who didn’t evacuate. That enabled us to check on them and also would allow us to notify them in the event that the fire entered the townsite and threatened their home.”
All officers and other essential persons worked 12-hour shifts, slept on cots in the police station and never went home, Torpy said.
Detectives reviewed several years’ worth of cases in which people were arrested for property crimes. The detectives obtained their addresses and paid visits to those who remained in town.
“We had conversations with them and stressed the importance of evacuating,” Torpy said. “That’s what I call ‘proactive policing.’ Most of them left and we kept a close watch on the few who stayed.”
A typical day for Torpy during the fire began with an early morning telephone briefing as he drove to the day’s first news conference. Torpy, Fire Chief Doug Tucker, LANL Director Charlie McMillan, Council Chair Sharon Stover and others held daily news conferences to update the public on the status of the fire.
He’d leave the conference and attend quick meetings with folks making operational decisions. Throughout the day, Torpy granted interviews, attended more meetings and news conferences before heading down to visit residents in the shelters. People asked him to check on their homes, horses, and house pets. If their doors were unlocked, Torpy saw to it that the evacuated residents’ pets were fed.
“I’d finally go home late at night and lay there thinking and then the phone would start ringing,” he said. “There were a few people who were the faces of this event like Chief Tucker, Sharon Stover and myself, but there were so many wonderful people fighting the fire, lab, state, federal … This impressed me more than anything in my professional career — the fact that they were able to control that fire that was threatening our town every day.”
Assistance poured in from across the state. Cabinet secretaries from the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Public Safety were in town nearly daily.
“The cabinet secretaries were here to lend a hand and they offered incredible suggestions,” Torpy said.
Torpy co-founded the Los Alamos Safety Association five years ago. Top safety and security officials from local agencies and organizations including Los Alamos National Laboratory and its protective force, SOC, gather for lunch each month to get to know each other and to discuss common issues.
“It’s all about relationships. We can look at each other and know when something is the right thing,” Torpy said. “We were all just one button away in the event of an emergency. SOC Manager Ken Freeman and Mike Lansing, associate director of safety and security at LANL, are members of LASA and they were invaluable to me. The association was worth every effort we put into it.”
The 911 dispatch center was inundated with calls everyday, Torpy said.
“Our dispatchers are extremely competent and did an excellent job in fielding repeat questions about the fire and evacuation, dispatching fire trucks and fire and police personnel,” he said. “County workers also did a phenomenal job. They removed trees and cut down dangerous underbrush around the ice rink at the height of the fire to protect the town.”
So many people pitched in to help, Torpy said.
“The National Guard and other people and agencies provided much needed assistance,” he said. “We could spend all day and all I could do is keep thanking these folks. The cooperation from beginning to end including from our citizens was amazing – the expression of concern for our well-being from the start of the fire through today, I find so heartwarming.”