Among the wildland fire equipment Los Alamos Fire Department has on hand in case of fire are these six tenders. Photo Courtesy LAFD
BY MAIRE O”NEILL
While folks in Los Alamos County are reminiscing about being evacuated 10 years ago for the Las Conchas Fire, it seems appropriate to remind our community of the importance of being ready when wildfire strikes again. Since 1977, three wildland fires have burned more than 5,000 acres – the largest, Las Conchas, burned more than 126,500 acres.
Los Alamos Fire Department will have personnel on hand from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday during ScienceFest, as well as a display with information on wildland fires and how to prepare homes and families for a wildfire.
The Los Alamos Reporter chatted with LAFD Wildland Division Chief Kelly Sterna Thursday to get his perspective on mitigation efforts in the County since Las Conchas. The County has recently completed Phase 2 of a Federal Emergency Management Agency mitigation grant where the primary focus was fuels mitigation. The project consisted of removing and reducing fuel (trees) and chipping to reduce the spread capability, should a wildfire incident occur.
Sterna said “We always encourage members of our community to assist us with their own mitigation efforts. Simple tasks that can help such as clearing a 30-foot radius around their home, making it easier for crews to take action during a wildfire incident.”
Sterna also likes to direct members of the public to the “Ready, Set, Go” (RSG!) program information on the LAFD website at https://www.losalamosnm.us/government/departments/fire_department/wildlanddivision or go to https://www.losalamosnm.us/UserFiles/Servers/Server_6435726/File/Government/Departments/LAFD-Fire/Wildland/Ready%20Set%20Go.pdf where they will find comprehensive information and simple to follow tips for anyone who could be faced with having to leave the community due to fire.
“Since we live in a wildland urban interface, it is important that we stay aware of our surroundings and we need the community’s help with a proactive approach in taking actions before wildfire incidents occur,” Sterna said.
To be ready, Sterna said it is important to prepare for wildland fire long before it occurs. He cited the importance of creating defensible space around homes by keeping combustible materials at a distance, cleaning out gutters and removing dead and dying material from around the property. With all the recent rain in the community, weeds are greening up and when the weather gets warmer, they will dry out and create a hazard. Sterna suggested keeping weeds at as low a height as possible.
“We try to focus on the practical measures people can take around their homes,” Sterna said.
He suggested signing up for County’s Code Red Telephone Alerting System at https://public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/B5B7BFCA53CA or the Code Red Mobile App (at the same link) to be kept informed of emergency situations in the community. Contacting the public in this way is the most manageable and efficient way for emergency services with limited staffing to get the word out, Sterna said.
Asked about the physical evacuation of the community, Sterna said families should plan to take only one vehicle and should keep their gas tanks half to three-quarters full. Using one vehicle reduces stress and keeps people together as they leave the community. He suggests that people leave before the threat approaches because it is better to leave too soon rather than waiting too long.
Sterna said all LAFD firefighters are trained for wildland fire to National Wildfire Coordinating Group standards as well as through New Mexico State Forestry. He noted that on any given day there are 27 LAFD firefighters on duty.
LAFD has deployed more than 30 firefighters to some 25 fires nationally since 2017. Sterna said they have brought back extensive experience to Los Alamos National Laboratory and the County from those fires. LAFD has six tenders which hold 1,750 gallons, seven Type 5 brush engines that hold 400 gallons, and a Type 3 brush engine that holds 800 gallons.
Sterna’s wildland fire experience began in 2001 with the Red River Fire Department where he worked on a Type 2 hand crew and fuel mitigation projects. He was also an engine crew member and a hotshot crew member. For the last 16 years, Sterna has worked for LAFD, beginning as a firefighter in 2005, promoting to driver-engineer in 2008, captain in 2009 and eventually becoming Wildland Division Chief in 2017. He holds NWCG certification for engine boss, helicopter crew member and wildland communications technician. He has also been on the LAFD Technical Rescue Team, Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus Team, Shift Training Team and Communication Team.
To read about a recent presentation by Sterna to Los Alamos County Council go to https://losalamosreporter.com/2021/04/06/los-alamos-fire-department-taking-2020-wildland-fire-season-very-seriously/