These three trucks are the newest Los Alamos Fire Department Wildland Fire Division apparatus. Photo Courtesy LAFD
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Fire Department Wildland Fire Division Chief Kelly Sterna says the Department is taking this year’s wildland fire season very seriously.
Speaking to the Los Alamos County Council Tuesday evening, Sterna said the worst case scenario this year that LAFD and its local partners are looking at is the convergence of fire seasons in different regions. Historically the Southwest Region which is Arizona, West Texas, New Mexico and a little bit of southern Nevada, starts in April and continues until the monsoons come in late July. Because of the lack of moisture and climate change across the west, Sterna said the worst fear would be that all available air resources, which are the biggest assistance for wildland fire, would be diverted to other regions that may have earlier fire seasons this year.
“That’s what the big worry is, so on a day-to-day basis we’re talking with multiple local partners and looking already at fire restrictions. As we see the weather starting to get warmer, it’s a week-by-week thing that we’re going to be looking at to really ensure we stay on top of this,” Sterna said.
He said looking at the significant wildland fire potential, in June New Mexico is moving forward.
“The reason that we’re a little bit more apprehensive this year than most, is probably in part because of the less than average monsoon season that we had last summer in addition to the snowpack levels locally that were below average too,” Sterna said. “These weather factors aligned with the historical 10-year burn cycles for large fires near us – as you well know, we are at the 10-year anniversary of Las Conchas and the 21-year anniversary of Cerro Grande. We see this historical pattern pop up every 10-11 years so we want to make sure that we’re definitely prepping our folks and local agencies with what we’re doing.”
In preparation for wildland fire season, Sterna says LAFD puts all its operations folks through the RG130 annual wildland refresher and their pack test.
“All our LAFD wildland apparatus are inspected before the season so when we get into the heart of wildland season we’re not taking a vehicle to get it maintenance for normal routine stuff,” he said.
LAFD has been meeting with Los Alamos National Laboratory Fire Management, the U.S. Forest Service, Santa Fe National Forest as well as local partners from Santa Fe County, the Northern Pueblos Association and Bandelier National Monument.
“We’re really working hard to make sure that everyone is on the same page and we’re working towards that more cooperative type of response dealing with what we’re possibly facing this summer,” Sterna said.
The LAFD Wildland Fleet has seven Type 6 brush engines and six Type 2 water tenders.
“We do a lot of training including fire shelter training which is very important,” Sterna said, recalling the movie about the crew that passed away in the Yarnell Fire in Arizona. “When we deploy our fire shelters, it’s not a good day for us and every year we have to make sure that our folks are trained and get practice repetitions on deploying their shelters, and making sure that they’re up to speed on their training.”
Sterna also addressed LAFD’s Wildland Mitigation Program. He noted that Los Alamos has been evacuated three times due to wildland fire – the first time in 1954 for the Water Canyon Fire, and then the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires.
“After Cerro Grande, FEMA awarded the County around $13.2 million to prevent a reoccurrence and one of the things that started from that grant money was the mitigation project. Craig Martin with the County’s Open Space Division did quite a good job getting assistance from Santa Fe National Forest, particularly Bill Armstrong who at the time was the chief prescription writer for SFNF,” he said.
Sterna said up until 2017 about 1,400 acres was mitigated but more importantly Craig Martin authored the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).
“That really started prioritizing areas that we really wanted to look at mitigation-wise as well as kind of got the ball rolling on what we wound up doing in 2017 on the $400,000 grant that we received from New Mexico Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP). That duel-phased grant in the first phase provided the County with the environmental assessment for the project areas we were working in primarily in the Northern Community,” he said. That CWPP was a tremendous gift for us because it really outlined areas that we wanted to focus on and gave us a roadmap on how to go through mitigation projects dealing with cultural sites, threatened/endangered species locations and just seasonal restrictions that harm our County property.”
With that in mind, Sterna said, an update to the CWPP was conducted with a grant from the New Mexico Association of Counties. In December, a 114-acre mitigation project in seven different areas was completed. Two new grant proposals have been submitted to the NMAC. One is for $15,500 for a second update to the CWPP which Sterna said is a living document for him.
“It’s a highway on how we go about planning fuels reduction projects, prioritizing fuels reduction projects, and laying that blueprint for the future,” he said.
The second grant application is for mitigation of approximately 51 acres that ties into additional areas that weren’t included in the previous HMGP grant. Sterna said he will be asking Council to approve a budget request for fuels reduction/mitigation of about $50,000 – $75,000 annually.
“Typically what we’ve run into as far as labor costs for mitigation per acre is around $1,500 per acres. So we’re looking at around 50-60 acres a year. What we really want to try and focus on is this cycle of mitigation. If we don’t get into these areas and re-treat them every 3-5 years, we run the risk of vegetation overgrowing and possibly more invasive species coming to those areas that we really don’t like to see,” he said.
Sterna recognized the work of Eric Peterson of Los Alamos County Open Space Division who partnered with LAFD on the grant for the 114 acres of mitigation work.
“When we were in these areas doing fuels reduction, invasive species such as the Russian Olive and the Chinese Elm – he came in as soon as we cut them and poisoned them to help halt their growth and get a really nice forest floor with natural vegetation, more grass-like and more space in between the trees,” Sterna said.
He said LAFD is trying to create a buffer on County-owned property that borders private residences.
“In the summertime, our dominant wind direction is from the south-southwest. When we get a backdoor cold front, that wind direction changes to north-northeast which is associated with dry lightning. You can then imagine a scenario where we have wind pushing from the north-northeast with dry lightning and we face the possibility of a forest fire moving in towards private residences. We wanted to establish defensible space zones that give us as a fire department a little but more response time and a little bit more of a buffer to be able to get in there and work those fires rather than seeing crowning and torching and more extreme fire behavior that might have the potential to reach homes. Once we get one, two, three homes involved that’s a really tough day for any fire department to handle,” Sterna said.
Using the HMGP grant, LAFD performed 513 home assessments along the project area boundaries and provided that data to a third-party vendor that is also working with LANL to come up with an incident response plan. The maps produced show fire danger levels, trigger points and fire danger ratings. A map showing hydrant locations will also be added so that if structure protection is necessary there will be good intelligence for LAFD as well as incoming resources that may provide mutual aid, Sterna noted.
Sterna said as LAFD completes forest mitigation for the County, the goal is to keep the mature tree specials healthy and happy.
“How we do that is we open up the canopy. Traditionally or historically in New Mexico, especially Northern New Mexico, a healthy forest is really around 30-50 trees per acre. Right now we’re seeing upwards of 100-200 trees per acre in some areas including Los Alamos County. What we’re really trying to do is open up that canopy, get the moisture that actually falls right into the ground so that those tree species that we want to keep such as ponderosa pine, blue spruce and aspen as healthy as possible,” he said.
Sterna discussed tools and machinery used for forest thinning. He also discussed the anxiety people have about prescribed fire.
“I can definitely speak from experience as a member of the fire service that’s been helping Santa Fe National Forest and other local agencies carry out their prescribed fire projects. At some point in the future I would like to touch on this as a tool to use. It’s very cost effective and we see the results a lot quicker than the other types of mechanical thinning that we use, whether it’s chainsaw and or the wood chipper,” he said. “One big fact we hang our hat on whether it’s a good or a bad thing, is that because of the Cerro Grande Fire, the restrictions and the process of getting a prescribed fire planned and approved are very strict. You have to complete a prescribed fire plan, it has to be reviewed not only in your agency but also sent out to a third party for technical review before it gets approved.”
Sterna said these checks and balances are used in wildland fire to make sure that no steps are missed along the way that might cause a fire that could not be contained such as weather conditions that were not planned for. He described different versions of prescribed fire but noted that pile burns are more of what LAFD is looking towards in coming years during snowfall or favorable moisture conditions when the piles could be burned safely.
“Around Los Alamos I’m sure you’ve seen especially along the State Road 4 corridor what LANL has done to prevent fires taking off from the roadways because again, in the summertime we get fires from automobile exhaust and cigarette butts thrown out windows, so we really want to try to buy ourselves a little bit of extra space there. LANL has done a fantastic job adding some of those fuel breaks along State Road 4 and Pajarito corridors,” he said.
The community can expect to see extensive public information from LAFD in coming weeks in local news outlets and on social media on everything from preparing defensible space around homes to being ready to leave in case of an evacuation. So many County residents arrived long after the devastation of the Cerro Grande Fire and are therefore not fully aware of the continuing likelihood of wildfire entering the community. Several resources, including the Ready Set Go plan, are available on the LAFD Wildland Fire Division’s website at https://www.losalamosnm.us/government/departments/fire_department/wildlanddivision. The Community Wildfire Protection Plan may be viewed at https://www.losalamosnm.us/UserFiles/Servers/Server_6435726/File/Government/Departments/LAFD-Fire/Wildland/Los_Alamos_CWPP_Signatures_3.pdf