Cerro Pelado Fire Officials Optimistic But Cautious During Thursday’s Community Briefing In Los Alamos

Great Basin Team #1 Incident Commander Rich Harvey, center, and Operations Section Chief Jeff Surber, left, listen as Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes speaks during Thursday evening’s Cerro Pelado community meeting at Griffith Gym. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

Los Alamos National Laboratory Wildland Fire Manager Rich Nieto, left, answers questions for local residents Thursday evening at Griffith Gym. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


Great Basin Incident Management Team #1 Incident Manager Rich Harvey speaking at Thursday evening’s Cerro Pelado Fire community meeting said there is still a lot of work to do on the fire. He said the wind in recent days caused crews to have respect for the fire.

“They couldn’t go right up to it to hit it. We had to stay back and let it come to us. That changed on Wednesday. The red flags are gone that we had for five or six days. The yellow flags aren’t a whole lot better but they are somewhat better. We were able to transition from indirect to direct – that’s a big deal,” Harvey said.

He said the safety of firefighters and the general public has always been the team’s priority.

“You guys just gave me our second priority that if someone asked, ‘Who evacuated during the Cerro Pelado?’  I wouldn’t see any hands go up in the air. Our second goal is to make sure you guys can stay home,” Harvey said, adding that every day the team can hold the fire where it is gives them a bettwe chance of that.

The other thing the team wants to do is drop it back from “set” to “ready”.

“From everything I’ve learned, New Mexico is probably going to be in ‘ready’ all year long, at least until the monsoon cycle. So that’s a status you never really get out of,” Harvey said.

He noted that the firefighters appreciate the support they are getting from the community.

“They feel it, they hear it, they see it – the signs and all that stuff. It makes some of those 16-hour days, and that semi-warm breakfast and kind of cold dinner worth the effort,” Harvey said.

Later during the meeting, Harvey was asked when Los Alamos County might go back from “set” mode to “ready” mode.

“That’s a tough question but I think the answer is probably not in a week. One of the things that we’re looking at is we don’t want to have you bounce back and forth. We won’t move from ‘set’ back to ‘ready’ until we feel that’s going to get you through the rest of the fire. Every day that we don’t lose ground but gain ground, puts us one step closer to that,” he said.

He noted that he had met with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier in the afternoon. (The governor met with fire, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and County officials in an unpublicized visit to Los Alamos Thursday afternoon. Harvey said he told the governor that every day the team moves forward is one more day closer to getting people back to normal life.

“What we’re trying to figure out is when does this fire no longer pose a threat. That’s a tough question to answer but the answer does lie with good days going in the bank with the firefighters. The more good days the more we can count on that northeast corner, the more surety we will have if it’s time to let people go back to ‘ready’. On Saturday we’re meeting with the Forest Service to see where we’re at. We will sit down and talk through all the things that challenge us out there and see how many of those we are able to mitigate and how comfortable we are with the barriers we put in there,” Harvey said.

He said there’s a lot of work being done and that the fire is not the same fire that it was two weeks ago.

“We’re making progress on improving roads. One thing that helping us a lot out there is that it’s acting like spring. The grass is green in the higher elevations. Three weeks ago, when this fire started, the grass was brown and it’s burning differently so as we start to figure out what that looks like in our model prediction, eventually it’s going to be brown again but right now we have a pretty good edge so we’re going to take advantage of everything we’ve got and try to get you guys back to ‘ready’ as soon as possible,” Harvey said.

The Great Basin Team’s Operations Manager Jeff Surber said the amount of terrain the fire is consuming is decreasing and the growth of the fire is subsiding.

“You’ll see some growth in the fire tomorrow morning but there’s less and less every day. I just don’t want to be too optimistic about the fact that this fire can’t escape because it can. We’ll stay real vigilant out there. We’ll have the night shift out there watching and working along the edge, doing everything we can. We’ll just have to stay with it. I don’t want to present something that sounds too rosy and that we have a handle on it and that it’s all over, because it’s not,” Surber said.

Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes again mentioned how impressed he has been with the cooperation between the agencies involved with the fire.

“Every morning we meet with the Department of Energy, the National Laboratory, Los Alamos Public Schools, the County Emergency Management, the Fire Department and the Police Department. We also coordinate with the National Park Service and Bandelier,” he said. “Today is Day 21 of this event. This new team from Great Basin has come in and they’ve just done some great work.”

Hughes spoke of firefighters sleeping in tents in 20 degree weather working 16 hour days – trying to get what little rest they can, getting up the next morning starting over again.

“Those guys deserve a lot of credit and the team’s leadership of those guys has been impressive. We’re very fortunate to have these guys here,” he said.

LANL Wildfire Manager Rich Nieto said one of the most important things going on with the Cerro Pelado fire is impeccable safety record that this incident management team has had. He discussed some of the direct tactics being used on the fire and complimented the boots on the ground for their hard work and the safety record they have had to this point, especially given the previous six days of red flag conditions.

Nieto used maps to show the distance from the fire’s perimeter to the boundary of LANL as well as the size of the Frijoles Canyon drainage area. He said that if considering moving to the “go” phase the team would look at the fire’s behavior, how far the fire has

Showed the distance to the boundary of the Lab. Showed how large Frijoles Canyon drainage. In the event that we were to go to the point of evacuation, we would look at fire behavior and how far the fire has progressed before it would take that action. Nieto also explained that the reason for the size of the cumulous clouds from the Calf Fire is because they fire is burning previously unburned timber.

“It’s very similar to what you experienced in Las Conchas and Cerro Grande. The difference now is that Cerro Pelado is going through the Las Conchas burn scar. You don’t have that same level of fire behavior and with red flags some of those pockets that were unburned can be of concern but you’re not going to have the rate of spread that you had that very first day the fire started. In the Sierra de Los Pinos area, where the Cerro Pelado started, it was in unburned timber. That’s why you had that large cumulous build-up,” Nieto said.

He noted that the growth of the fire has dropped from about 3,000 acres a day to about 500 acres a day.

“The difference is Las Conchas and Cerro Grande you did not have a Type 1 team already in place. That’s something that should give you a little peace of mind. Fire behavior, the forecast and the spread potential of the fire are all factors the team will look at before a decision to evacuate would be made,” Nieto said.

Los Alamos County Emergency Manager Beverley said there will be a test of the CodeRED system Friday at 3 p.m. so everyone who has signed up should receive that message. She said if there are any issues, to let the County know.  

Simpson also noted changes in evacuation shelter availability should the community have to evacuate. The Glorieta Evacuation Site is no longer accepting evacuees because they are getting ready for their summer camps. She said Los Alamos County residents would utilize the Genoveva Chavez Recreation Center at 3221 Rodeo Road in Santa Fe and that a pet center will also be set up there.

“I want to remind people that the trails are closed – the National Forest and the County trails. The County does have some paved trails that remain open and those that are not paved, everything is closed and I did verify that with Santa Fe National Forest. Remember we are in Stage 3 fire restrictions. Be cognizant of your actions as far as throwing cigarette butts out the window,” Simpson said.

She reported that the County is also looking at expanding some services and will be meeting Friday to discuss what facilities could open and which ones will remain closed. She said 80 percent of the large animals have been evacuated from the stables and thanked the Stable Association and stable owners for removing those animals from danger should there be a large evacuation.

“We also continue to assist those residents who have access and functional needs and those who require transportation to voluntarily evacuate from Los Alamos County. Sombrillo and Aspen Ridge have been evacuated. A big shout out to Atomic City Transit and the LAFD EMS personnel for moving residents and staff of those facilities to Albuquerque,” Simpson said.

Los Alamos Public Schools Asst. Supt. Jennifer Guy said the reason the School District feels comfortable going back to school is because of the fire team and the outstanding communication that they have had.

“We’re still very much prepared to be in the ‘set’ phase. We’re talking to people from this team every day twice a day and will continue to watch. Our goal is to not have kids on campus and to have kids at home when we evacuate. So we’ll keep watching each day and if we think there’s a chance that we don’t have enough notice to have kids united with their parents at home, we would cancel school again,” Guy said. “With regard to next week, with everything we’ve heard and the information we’ve been given with the high level of communication, we feel like we can safely have kids in school. If something changes, I am confident they are going to let us know and then we would send kids home.”

Asked about the cause of the fire, Luke Decker, representative of the Santa Fe National Forest said they are still waiting to get the final investigative report and that as soon as the report is available it will be released. Decker noted that the SFNF has closed the fire area itself,

“Last time I said that there were discussions on that next level of closure. I have heard back that the closure of the forest is coming probably in the next week or so,” Decker said.

Asked about an estimated timeframe for the reopening of State Road 4, Nieto said that there are two things going on there. One is the aviation assets that are flying in the area. He said all the blow-downs along the road are being removed and there is thinning, chipping and masticator work going on along the road causing it to be inundated with vehicles.

“ It’s going to be some time before Hwy 4 opens up again. It will be a decision made by the team, including the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the state,” Nieto said.

Great Basin Team #1 Incident Management PIO Mike Lindbery, right, chats with a community member following Thursday’s briefing. Lindbery has been a familiar face to those who have attended several community briefings held since the Cerro Pelado Fire broke out April 22 and is finally getting a break Saturday after being on the job that entire time. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes answers questions Thursday evening at Griffith Gym. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com