Southern Area Incident Management Team PIO John Nichols introduces speakers Monday evening at the Cerro Pelado Fire community meeting in Los Alamos, including Los Alamos County Fire Chief Troy Hughes, seated to his left. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Cerro Pelado Fire officials who spoke Monday evening included, from left, Peter Meyer, Operations Section with the Southern Area Red Incident Management Team, Jeremy Marshall, Agency Administrator for the Santa Fe National Forest, Supt, Jorge Silva-Banuelos of Valles Caldera National Preserve and Lawrence Crain of the State Forestry Division. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Los Alamos County Council Chair Randall Ryti, left, chats with Sandy Hurlocker, retired Espanola District Ranger for the Santa Fe National Forest, center, and Eric Chavez, Field Representative for U.S. Sen, Ben Ray Lujan. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Cerro Pelado Fire officials, including Los Alamos County Fire Chief Troy Hughes, were very clear in their messaging Monday evening during a virtual and in-person community update meeting with regard to preparedness, evacuation, and where the community should look for accurate and up-to-date information on the fire.
“Right now we’re not in an evacuation situation. The fire is at least six miles away from even the back corner of (Los Alamos National Laboratory), which means another four miles to the townsite. Obviously we’re making plans so we’re ready. You can follow the directions for Ready, Set, Go and make sure you have a good way to get notified,” Hughes said.
Fire officials noted that the area between the current fire location and the Lab are not all flat and that the canyons would slow the forward progress of the fire if it got that close.
County Emergency Manager Beverley Simpson said the team is working on the possible triggers for evacuation.
“With the ability to forewarn the public and evaluate, we will have time to move out individuals and animals,” Simpson said.
She noted that three locations have been established for people to take their animals: Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque, some 20 horse stalls that are available in Pojoaque and the Rio Arriba County Fairgrounds in Abiquiu. She said people can move their animals to any one of those locations any time they see fit.
Chief Hughes noted that fire officials are measuring distances and working with fire behavior analysts to see how long the fire might take from its current point to the Lab and how long it would take from there to Omega Bridge where the residential populations starts.
“We are going to be very conservative and probably will pull (the evacuation) trigger sooner than may be necessary but we want to be safe,” Hughes said. “ With the dry conditions we’re very cautious and we’ve seen some pretty extreme fire behavior even in the burn scar so we’re going to be early with that.”
Hughes said he can’t stress enough to people to go to the appropriate websites to look for information, such as the Cerro Pelado Fire site and the Cerro Pelado Fire Information Facebook page.
“I would like to call that other site, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Inaccurate,’ he said. “Go to the official sources. We’ve been very well-linked in with the Department and LANL to put out the daily joint bulletin, so go there if you want to get good, accurate information,” he said.
Hughes said it is important for people to sign up for CodeRed.
“CodeRed is the quickest way to receive information. It pings your phone immediately so you get the information immediately. Also the County’s public information officer will ensure the information gets out to local media. I very much encourage everyone to get Red Alert,” he said.
LANL Wildland Fire Manager Rich Nieto also addressed the evacuation protocol issue during his comments.
“There are a lot of areas the fire has to go through before it gets there. You will be in the know prior. We have a team that is responsible for getting that information and communicate that to you. It’s not going to be a case like it was in Cerro Grande or Las Conchas where at two in the morning it was , ‘We’ve got to go’,” Nieto said.
He noted that there is a different posture for the Lab itself and the fire team works with Lab leadership and the Department of Energy Field Office to put that together.
Scott Stearns, the Incident Meteorologist told the community that from noon through 9 p.m. Tuesday southwesterly winds 10 mph to 20 mph winds with gusts up to 35 mph were expected which is right on the edge of the critical wind criteria. He said relative humidity is expected to get down into the single digits – about 10 percent – which might be a little higher than has been seen in recent critical days.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have much of a chance of precipitation in sight. It looks like next best chance which is around 15 percent chance is Monday,” he said. “Wednesday will see slightly decreased winds thankfully below the critical level. The bad news is later this week we will be warming up and will see some of the warmest temperatures that we’ve seen on the fire this far. The good news is that we’re not going to see a lot of wind from Wednesday to Thursday timeframe through Friday which hopefully gives the crews the chance to get some additional work done.”
Alison Coons, the incident’s Fire Behavior Analyst said it was likely that there would be some moderate to very active fire behavior over the western portion of the incident but that moving farther over toward the east and north, there would likely be forward moving fire anywhere from a quarter of a mile an hour to three-quarters of a mile. Coons stressed that this is not a constant that every hour there is another half a mile burned.
“It’s just that if the fuel, the weather, the wind and the topography line up to support that kind of spread. As that’s going on the ground resources are not really able to address it and they’re going to have to back off if it gets going really good. As we get down into the southeast and south, we’re looking more at backing into the winds that are predicted so that will definitely be a lesser amount of spread,” Coons said. “Fuels are starting to run out in the southeast where the fire is really running into the rocky, snaggy area where there is very little fuel to carry it and for the most part it is not making and progress. In the northeast, things are being held in check by the resources on the ground but hopefully Scott’s weather predictions will be wrong and we won’t get those hard winds and we will get less movement than the modeling is showing.”
Jenny Perth, the Air Resource Advisor said the air had been pretty good all day Monday but that Tuesday will be impacted with smoke all day and Wednesday and Thursday will be similar to Monday. Fire officials provide daily smoke forecasts on the Cerro Pelado Fire Information Facebook page and on InciWeb. Perth noted that another air monitor will be installed in Espanola and possible another one in Los Alamos. Perth recommended the website https://fire.airnow.gov/
Pete Meyers, the Red Team’s Operations Section Chief noted the extreme drought conditions in the area and the fact that it’s probably the driest it’s ever been at this time of the year.
“Usually it’s this dry come the end of May not in April. The fire is moving pretty much 24 hours a day right now. Humidity has only been up to a high of 25-30 percent. After Wednesday the humidity is supposed to be recovering at night for the rest of the week which will slow the fire down at night,” he said. “There’s a lot of great firefighting going on.”
Meyer thanked Los Alamos County for providing engines and tenders which he said really helped out particularly the first two days. He said there are now 10-12 hand crews and 30-40 engines.
“We have a lot of resources now to take care of a lot of this stuff. We’re still working hard. We’re prepping Hwy 4 in case we have to turn around and connect all this and we’re still trying to protect the Sierra Los Pinos community,” Meyer said.
Valles Caldera National Preserve Supt. Jorge Silva-Banuelos said there is some fire now in the Caldera on Rabbit Mountain south of Hwy 4.
“I saw some really good work by fire teams so I hope to keep it there. I’m concerned about how it will progress if it gets into the upper watershed of Frijoles Canyon and how it would affect Bandelier and downstream resources and values there,” he said.
Silva-Banueos noted that it has been about11 years since the Las Conchas Fire which was the largest fire in the state’s history at that time.
“That record amazingly lasted only a year. A fire in the Gila Forest then grew to about 300,000 acres. These were unprecedented fires in terms of their size, their intensity and severity. Fast forward 10 years – fires of 100,000+ are now very common; it’s almost a normality every summer,” he said. “I see these large fires especially in California that are 100,000, 200,000, a million acres. What I think we’re seeing again here is one of the first fires that I’m aware of coming through a second layer into the burn scar and frankly I was surprised to see how active this fire behavior has been in this whole burn scar. Usually these burn scars tend to reduce fire behavior and the fire just kinds of punts along but as you can see this fire is tracking very closely to where the Las Conchas burn scar has been and that’s very challenging because it’s far too dangerous to put firefighters into those burn scars given the large snags and other trees that are there and could fall at any time.”
He said this is quite a bit of precedent for potentially other areas of the country that have experienced these large fires and “how we’re going to have to manage and defend these areas when the second fire comes in a decade later or so”
“We are grateful to have the resources. Everybody should take to heart this is going to be here for a while. We’re going to be dealing with this fire for a while,” Silva-Banuelos said.
Chief Hughes thanked the Southern Area Red Team for their professionalism.
“They’ve been here on our site for more than a week and from day one I’ve been impressed with how they operate, the way they coordinate with us, not only the Red Team but DOE, LANL, the Forest Service, the Park Service – we’re all working this fire together. It’s a great experience for me. Having not been here for Las Conchas and seeing this kind of effort is awesome. I like the whole team except Scott Stearns,” said Hughes, joking about the meteorologist who had earlier forecasted high winds for Tuesday. “The rest of the team has been great.”
Rich Nieto, a former Type 1 Incident Commander, reiterated that there’s a lot of good work being done by the boots on the ground. He presented slides on the mitigation projects at LANL that were inspired by lessons learned during the Las Conchas Fire that made a one-mile run in a two-day period.
Chief Hughes later noted that since the Las Conchas Fire, the LAFD’s entire wildland fleet of six tenders and six brush engines have been replaced as well as other equipment such as saws and protective gear. He gave credit to LAFD’s Wildland Fire Division Chief Kelly Sterna and noted that LAFD would not have all this equipment without the partnership with the Department of Energy.