Ready, Set, Go? The Problem Of Premature Evacuation In Los Alamos

White Rock

After Los Alamos County and LANL announced the transition from “Ready” to “Set” this past weekend, some members of the community reacted promptly — LAPS canceled school, restaurants closed, medical services were reduced and appointments cancelled, some non-essential County services closed, community events were cancelled, and many residents chose to evacuate.  Meanwhile, other residents are everything from cautiously optimistic or hesitant to outright dismissive of the wildfire threat.  Many residents have directly expressed confusion about immediate expectations; and it’s no wonder, since neither LANL nor Los Alamos County can even agree on what “Ready”, “Set”, and “Go” mean.

Both the official messaging and resident reaction has been mixed because the terminology is indecipherably inconsistent.  Los Alamos County and LANL web sites both refer to the phased “Ready, Set, Go” model and both link these references to the Wildland Fire Action Guide, which clearly defines expectations in each of these phases.  This document has been repeatedly cited, and residents have been urged to print a copy for their own reference. Unfortunately, messaging from both LANL and Los Alamos County has been inconsistent with, and at times contradictory to, the Wildland Fire Action Guide, leaving many residents confused, frustrated, and distrustful. 

To summarize the official “Ready, Set, Go” model

  • The “Ready” checklist includes: preparing an evacuation and communication plan, signing up for local emergency alerts, creating an emergency “go kit”.  Officials have repeatedly told us that “Ready” is the default phase  we should all be in during wildfire season.
  • “Set” assumes all of the things in “Ready” are done, and additionally includes: dressing in natural fibers, having goggles, remaining close to your home, turning off sprinklers, closing all doors and windows, moving furniture away from windows and doors, turning off air conditioners, patrolling your property and extinguishing small fires .  Clearly, “Set” is indicated when the fire is extremely close and evacuation is imminent.
  • “Go” is, well, just go, leave. You’ve already prepared during “Ready” and “Set”, now it’s time to “Go”.

LANL’s Frequently asked questions about Ready-Set-Go answered page says

The “set” phase of “ready, set, go” means create your own evacuation plan, a “go bag,” and a communication plan with area evacuation and contact information, and be sure to pay close attention to news and information about the fire. 

But, that’s clearly only the definition of “Ready”.

A Facebook post from Los Alamos County on May 10, 2022 said

IF your area moves to “Go” status, remember to do these things before leaving home

  • Close all windows and doors
  • Open all shades and curtains
  • Turn off air conditioning units
  • Empty all trash

But, the Wildland Fire Action Guide clearly includes those actions as part of the “Set” phase, not the “Go” phase.

Our officials claim we are in “Set”, but everything else they have said indicates that we are actually still in “Ready”.  So, which is it?

“Set” means evacuation is imminent, but during the official Zoom briefings we have been repeatedly warned that we may be in a holding pattern for months.  The Facebook post referenced above also recommended packing our valuables into our cars now… are we about to evacuate or not? 

The “Set” phase, as defined in the Wildland Fire Action Guide, is not sustainable for more than a day or two.  If experts do not predict an evacuation of any part of Los Alamos County within the next 48 hours then LANL and Los Alamos County need to revert back to “Ready”. 

Regardless of which phase we are in, officials need to agree on the terminology. If LANL and Los Alamos County definitions differ from the documents they have cited, then they need to stop referencing these inapplicable documents and create consistent custom wildfire guidelines for our community.

Please say what you mean and mean what you say.