In harm’s way
Last spring, the National Park Service (NPS) ignited a prescribed burn at Bandelier National Monument, miscalculating the potential severity of the event and sparking the worst wildfire in New Mexico’s history. Within days of its origin, the Cerro Grande fire (so named because of its proximity to the Cerro Grande summit) was swept by winds into Los Alamos Canyon, where it blazed toward the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock.
By the 20th day, when most of the flames had been extinguished, the fire had destroyed 400 homes in Los Alamos and scorched 47,650 acres. It had forced the evacuation of 18,000 residents; it had threatened archaeological treasures and the water supply at the Santa Clara Pueblo Reservation; and it had damaged and destroyed structures at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
Like the wildfire itself, the media descended on Los Alamos swiftly. Reporters focused on federal culpability and response to the fire — especially firefighters’ efforts to keep the fire away from the nuclear complex. Less widely reported was the local government response to the fire, which began on the second day and included evacuating town residents, disconnecting utilities and fighting the fire.
Begun on May 4 at 7 p.m., the Cerro Grande fire spread quickly beyond the prescribed fire lines, and, by the next day, local officials were preparing for the worst. “That’s when we began to look at what would happen ‘if,’” says Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas MacDonald. “We assigned people to the National Park Service command post.”
By 1 p.m., the NPS had declared the prescribed burn a wildfire, and, on May 6, crews began lighting back fires to prevent the flames from spreading. They were able to contain the fire through the third day of the event, but, as winds picked up on May 7, the fire’s speed and intensity grew.
In Los Alamos County, nervous locals stepped up their emergency management efforts. “I was in the LANL emergency operations center (EOC),” says Capt. Robert Repass, the county’s emergency management coordinator. “I asked that we have our county EOC set up and start bringing in some key personnel as we were watching it heat up. We started preparing for an evacuation; we wanted to be ready to go. Sure enough, the fire took off faster than we expected.”
At that point, the county had three missions: evacuate the parts of town threatened by the fire; shut off the electricity and natural gas in those neighborhoods; and help control the fire before it engulfed the entire town. Fire, police, public works, utilities and fleet management personnel began work according to the county’s all-hazard plan.
Getting the word out
Initially, evacuation affected select neighborhoods. Using LANL’s community alert network (CAN, a large-scale phone notification system), emergency management personnel were able to contact most of the residents.
“You can call up CAN and say ‘I’ve got an emergency,’ then designate the areas that calls go to,” Repass says. “They can either cover the whole town, large areas or neighborhoods. Our best estimate is that we hit about 65 percent of the people that way.”
Repass also notified television and radio stations, and he had police and fire units traveling through the area making announcements on PA systems. Meanwhile, the transportation officer rounded up school buses and vans to evacuate residents who did not have other means of transportation.
According to Repass, the partial evacuation went more smoothly and faster than he had calculated. Between 2,000 and 2,500 residents moved to the neighboring community of White Rock, about eight miles away and at a lower elevation than Los Alamos. “Ninety-five percent of the population stayed with friends and relatives,” Repass says. “A lot of people went on a vacation out of state. We only sheltered about 4 percent or 5 percent of the evacuees.”
Trial by fire
By May 8, the fire was five days old. It had burned 550 acres, and, despite the efforts of 137 firefighters, four fire engines and two helicopters, it was still uncontrolled. LANL closed its operations, and, within a day, 2,500 more acres were scorched. The National Park Service summarized the situation: “The fire is threatening the Los Alamos Laboratory, residences in the city of Los Alamos, gas pipelines and endangered species.”
It would worsen again within 24 hours. “The winds got up about noon (on May 10) and we had to start the evacuation at about 1:30 p.m.,” Repass says. “We evacuated the whole town, which was probably on the order of 11,500 people.” The evacuees included approximately 40 percent of the people who had evacuated on May 7 and later returned to Los Alamos.
The evacuees swelled the population of White Rock by approximately 50 percent, but, by late evening, they were on the move again. The southern end of the fire, which had posed little threat up to that point, started running toward White Rock — and toward an LANL facility storing low-level radioactive waste.
“There was the potential for a radioactive plume,” Repass says. “It would have been low-level — not life-threatening, but just a PR nightmare. We went ahead and pulled the plug in White Rock and evacuated.”
The operation did not go smoothly, Repass says. “The first evacuation (from Los Alamos to White Rock) happened in mid-afternoon; everyone had been watching the fire all day, and they were primed to leave,” he explains. “But at one in the morning, most people are in bed and asleep, and getting the word out was a bit more difficult. With so many more people, it was definitely slower. We had people sitting in their driveways for a couple of hours before they could even pull out onto the roadway out of town.”
The White Rock evacuation took approximately seven hours. Some residents went to Espanola and Albuquerque to wait out the disaster, while others stayed in shelters that were set up by the county approximately 30 miles away from Los Alamos.
“We lost most of the 400 residences Wednesday evening (May 10) and early Thursday morning,” Repass notes. “The weather forecast was for very heavy winds, which we got. It changed direction just slightly, and the fire pushed off to the north of us. If it had stayed in its original direction, I think we would have lost another third or more of the town.”
By May 11, 611 firefighters, 28 fire engines and nine helicopters were committed to the fire, and, although Repass did not know it at the time, the situation for Los Alamos was improving. By May 12, firefighters were busy with spot fires, but the flames moved north, away from Los Alamos.
Adhering to its emergency response plan, Los Alamos County had successfully moved its residents from the path of the fire and helped suppress the flames. However, its work had only begun. “The rest of that week was a nightmare of trying to get services restored,” Repass says. “White Rock was relatively unaffected; we opened it on Sunday (May 14),” Repass says. “But I think it was finally Friday (May 19) before we were able to open up the last residential area [in Los Alamos].”
After the fire, all the natural gas lines in the houses that burned had to be dug up and capped. The restoration process was delayed by mandatory asbestos inspections led by the state environmental agency. “Most of the houses that burned were old government housing with a lot of asbestos,” Repass says. “So the state environmental agency had to spray that stuff to keep the winds from spreading it. The process added a couple of days at a time when there was intense pressure on the county from people wanting to get back home.”
A year later, Los Alamos continues to rebuild and resettle. Congress has authorized $455 million to cover claims from the Cerro Grande fire, and, to date, FEMA (which administers the compensation program) has approved 4,000 claims for approximately $60 million. Additionally, the community has faced the threat of major flooding; the denuded landscape can no longer absorb the area’s heavy rain in the summer or thawed snowpack in the spring.
Using its all-hazard plan, Los Alamos minimized the in-town losses caused by the Cerro Grande fire, but Repass notes that the community is not out of the woods. “We still have a lot of unburned fuel here,” he says. As a result, Repass is reviewing the county’s preparedness plan and presenting recommendations and budget requests to the county council this month.
Timothy Elliott is a freelance writer based in Burbank, Calif.