BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County won’t be changing the Stage 3 Fire Restrictions configuration that went into effect May 5 until there is a change in conditions no matter how good the arguments presented by the public are, Los Alamos Fire Chief Troy Hughes said during Tuesday evening’s County Council virtual work session,
Hughes said there is still serious concern about fuel moistures after 47 days with no measurable precipitation.
“We’ve done fuel moisture readings in Los Alamos County and we’re seeing our moistures in our smaller fuels of ¼ inch to 1 inch of 1.5 percent to 1.6 percent and in 1000-hour fuels,which are 3 inches to 8 inches, are in the 5-6 percent range. An 8-inch wide board – a kiln-dried piece of lumber from the hardware store is going to have a moisture content of about 15 percent. This situation is very, very scary,” he said.
Hughes said fire officials are feeling pretty comfortable about the Cerro Pelado Fire because containment lines or checkpoints have been development in the last week and they are being reinforced daily. He said the other advantage is that the interior fuels have been burning now for three weeks so a lot of the potential inside the fire’s perimeter has gone down.
“We have a couple of factors that are not very good for us in the community here and in the state of New Mexico. There are several other fires going on now. The Black Fire in the Gila at about 56,000 acres and still going pretty strong and the Calf Canyon surpassing 300,000 acres. In talking to the fire behavior analysts from the Cerro Pelado Fire, they’ve heard estimates that the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire could go as many as 750,000 acres to 1.25 million acres before it stops, depending on weather, wind and efforts of the crews that on scene. We also have another fire near Socorro called the Bear Trap Fire that has reached 15,000 acres today,” Hughes said.
Although things are in pretty good shape for the Cerro Pelado Fire now, Hughes said as far as other fire starts, if another fire was to start in the area or anywhere near Los Alamos it would be a struggle to find resources.
“The first two days of this fire before we really got a team in place and got national resources in, Los Alamos Fire Department was about 25 percent of the firefighting force with our engines. We still had a full complement here in Los Alamos – that was just people that went out there. That was pretty small pickings for the first couple of days of resources which is typical on these fire situations. As we get more fires in the area, it’s going to be harder for us to get resources,” he said.
Hughes noted that Cibola National Forest, Carson National Forest and Santa Fe National Forest all are going to Stage 3 Thursday morning at 8 a.m.
“Every forest surrounding us, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Los Alamos County now are all going to be in Stage 3. There’s a lot of reasons behind it and we do get a lot of feedback from our local hikers and bikers that would like to be out in the forest and we realize they’re safe people that are concerned about the environment and not typically fire starters but our concern and that of the Forest Service, is that people that are out on a trail, and with any wind at all, the rate of progression on a fire right now is so quick and so fast and we do have unfortunately unburned pockets in Los Alamos that we can’t ensure the safety of somebody that’s even half a mile, a quarter of a mile, or even a mile out. They may not be able to get out,” he said.
Hughes said fire spread rates on other fires throughout the state with similar fuels have moved at least one mile in one minute, which means a 60 mph advancement forward on these fires in consistent fuel pockets.
“We’re obviously very concerned with the Forest Service closing that all their properties will have some impact on Los Alamos obviously. A lot of the trails that we have in Los Alamos are connected to or are solely National Forest trails so with that closure that closes all of our trails. LANL has closed all theirs. LANL trails connect to County property so we’re all closed for now,” he said.
Hughes noted that a lot of please have been received at the fire department but that thee won’d be a change with regard to Stage 3 restrictions until conditions change.
“We listened to a lot of people state-wide and nationally that told us it’s the right thing to do, and obviously with all three national forests in New Mexico going that route, we feel it’s good to get aligned with them and follow those practices so that’s where we’ll be,” he said.
Hughes said Santa Fe National Forest has decided to close the road to the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area.
“They are still going to allow access so that we can go up there and do maintenance on our cell tower and our communications towers and the ski hill staff can go up there and make sure the building is okay because obviously we don’t want that to deteriorate and have a fire, so we do want somebody checking on it, but they’re going to limit access only for essential things up that road,” he said.
Hughes noted that Fire Marshal Wendy Servey is working with Pajarito Ski Area and Emergency Management to find some alternative locations for some of the things the ski hill has planned, “so that we don’t cut into their fundraising and the things they do to stay in operation”.
“We’re being as business-friendly as we can in the environment we have and hopefully we’ll come up with some great solutions. That road will be closed as of Thursday morning as it is National Forest owned and they requested that it be closed,” Hughes said.
Asked what the criteria would be for reopening the trails, Hughes said it really depends what the County gets for fuel moistures, the weather.
“Obviously we’re very early in the fire season. Don’t expect to see temperatures in the 80s like we’ve had. We’ll work with Santa Fe National Forest very closely. We’re tied in with them as far as their fire behavior analysts at Bandelier, the Valles Caldera, which will also be closed. I would say some moisture is going to have to come before that happens. We’re in a 47 day streak with none, and we’re experiencing warm temperatures so it’s probably not going to get better for a little while,” he said.
Hughes noted that Stage 3 doesn’t only involve trails closure, but other things such as welding permits, and that even LANL activities involving some of their explosives testing has been shut down.
“As I look at the ownership map of Los Alamos, the only thing that we have control over are the ones that are interior to the community of Los Alamos or right around the core of the County. Anything that you see on the mountainsides is all either National Forest-owned or LANL-owned. All the stuff down in White Rock is LANL trails primarily and we don’t have much,” he said.
He said he would say the Stage 3 will be in effect for a few weeks.
“Last year in June we had I think three rains that happened outside of the monsoon cycle that brought some decent rain in and helped us in our fire season, and that’s possible again. The seven-day forecast that we got on the fire briefing this morning has one day with a 5 percent chance and the rest were all zeros. I’ve seen two days in the last two weeks where we had 5s and that was the highest percent that we’ve had so it’s not there right now for us and all I can say is it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” Chief Hughes said.