BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos resident Michael Collins commended the Los Alamos County Council for diligence and dedication earlier this year during fire season in taking actions that may have been unpopular at the time involving closing natural open areas.
Speaking under the public comment item on the agenda, Collins said the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas Fires had both started several miles away from Los Alamos. He said the community had time for an orderly evacuation from the County and was very fortunate that there were no fatalities during those fires.
“Some people may operate under the assumption that Los Alamos is safe from fire because we’ve had these major fires and burned off all the fuel to our west. I will point out that I’m not an expert in fire behavior or fire safety or the wildland urban interface but it is easy to see if you just go hiking up in the hills around here that much of the unburnt forest with the tall Ponderosas, in many cases dry Ponderosas, is intermixed with the residences of this town in the townsite itself,” Collins said.
He said he has often been concerned about the possibility of a crowning fire or a fast moving fire in town.
“I saw a fire similar to this back in 1996 when I was a volunteer during the St. Peter’s Dome Fire efforts – watching Ponderosas going up like torches kind of left an impression with me. Another thing that’s left an impression with me is the so-called Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. that occurred earlier this month. It was an urban fire that swept through very quickly and there was not time for an orderly evacuation. There were 85 plus deaths including people that were lined up in traffic to get out of danger and people were running for their lives,” Collins said.
He said generally when evacuating a mountain forest type community, you want to get people to where there are few trees for reduced fire danger and that means generally getting away from the mountains.
“Paradise had three routes that were ostensibly downhill and away from the mountains and those routes diverged, but in Los Alamos we have pretty much for parts of the townsite one or possibly two if you open Rendija Canyon as an emergency exit. This is a potential recipe for death and disaster in the case of a fast-moving fire in town,” Collins said.
He said he just happened to look at the size – what area was occupied by buildings and homes.
“It was about six square miles and that also happens to be about the area of Quemazon and the north community all the way to the ends of Barranca and North Mesas. Paradise, Calif. burned at a rate of 80 acres per minute accompanied by 50 mile and hour winds and even if a fire occurred in Los Alamos with half the burn rate, it would take only two hours to scorch a similar area,” Collins said. “I do not think that Los Alamos will ever be successful in building extra roads out of town but I’m very concerned that we take a serious look at thinning out the fuel loading because we have to look not just at the trees but at the buildings themselves in the neighborhoods. When everything catches it can move very quickly as we’ve seen and I hope that we can do some kind of study to make sure that our fuel densities are not at a level that would cause us the kind of firestorm that we saw in Paradise.”
At the end of the Council meeting Council Vice Chair Chris Chandler said she wanted to follow up on Collins’ comments. She acknowledged that the County has an Emergency Management Plan (EMP) in place and said she was not sure if it covers the issues Collins raised. She suggested that Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy communicate with Collins regarding what the County has in place.
Chandler said the Council received an email from a member of the public who brought up the notion of sheltering in place as an option and how to address that. She asked if it is addressed in the EMP and said a number of Collins’ points were well-taken.
“Evacuating of course is ideal but not always possible and what alternatives can we offer to our citizens should such a terrible crisis occur in our community. If these things are addressed already, then that’s great and we can respond to the citizens that raised them,” she said.
County Manager Harry Burgess responded that the EMP does address all those potentials just not to specific types of responses because every emergency has its own parameters.
“It does have provisions for sheltering in place, how we would initiate such for evacuations and as we went through the plan this spring we talked about zones and certain evacuation hierarchy for various zones. There’s a significant amount of planning there. It’s an all-hazards plan. It’s not specific to fire but it does incorporate those same provisions or strategies. More specifically after the Cerro Grande Fire the County initiated the development of a community wildland protection plan and specifically wildland urban interface effort to reduce the things Mr. Collins brought up such as the trees around houses,” Burgess said.
He added that the County plan identified congregate locations for situations when shelter in place was needed. He said those specified areas don’t have a plethora or supplies at them but they have been pre-identified so that they’re in the system should there be a call for shelter.
Burgess said more recently, the County through the Fire Department applied for and received a $400,000 mitigation grant that was part of the second grant received for thinning activities throughout the county. He said the first grant has been fully expended and the County is in the process of initiating those mitigation activities for the second grant.
“So there’s a lot of activity. The points are well taken with respect to any concerns. At the same time the plans in place are at the level that they need to be without any more information. They are designed to be responsive to winds coming from the east or the west and it is difficult with any such emergency to prepare for any potentiality but we have overarching concepts in place,” he said.
Chandler commented that there’s the EMP and then there’s the implementation.
“What I’m a little concerned about is we probably have a great plan but in terms of ensuring that houses have appropriately thinned areas and so on, I really question whether we are implementing that portion of the plan. It’s a little hard and I know you need the cooperation of the property owners but my sense is that that part of the plan hasn’t been pursued vigorously,” she said.
Burgess added that every spring LAFD has public outreach with wildland interface information available and people available to talk to homeowners about how they can better protect their properties.
Chief Hughes told the Los Alamos Reporter Friday afternoon that LAFD Wildland Fire Division Chief Kelly Sterna will be reaching out to Collins to discuss his concerns and explain the mitigation work being done and planned for the future.