BY THOM MASON
Los Alamos National Laboratory
I heard a lot about the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas wildfires before I came to New Mexico to lead Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2018. But experiencing a significant event like Cerro Pelado firsthand has deepened my respect for both wildfires and the power of community to help in times of need.
Many people went above and beyond in the last month: to keep our communities informed, to shelter evacuees and to prevent Cerro Pelado from becoming a large-scale disaster.
Los Alamos County and the Laboratory have great symbiosis on many things, including emergency response. Past wildfires have underscored how important that partnership is. When this fire began, the County and Laboratory’s emergency management teams immediately began coordinating firefighting resources, and, along with the National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos Field Office, ensuring our plans aligned to protect the Los Alamos community and the Laboratory site.
We had tremendous support from many players, including the DOE Office of Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, federal fire Incident Command teams and federal agencies that manage the land adjacent to the Lab, including the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Early on, these partners made a collective, strategic decision to share fire information widely and often. We worked hard to proactively address community concerns, with the goal of helping people make the best possible decisions for themselves and their families.
This collaboration did not start with the Cerro Pelado fire. It was a natural extension of a multi-year effort to prepare for wildfires by removing combustible material, improving fire roads, buying equipment and training workers.
In 2011, the Las Conchas fire burned 43,000 acres in its first 14 hours. Cerro Pelado took 20 days to reach the same acreage. This slow growth was due in part to 1,000-plus firefighters who went to extraordinary lengths to keep our homes and businesses safe. The Southern Area Red and Great Basin type 1 teams worked 16-hour shifts to get the fire under control, and they did so safely and professionally.
Their efforts gave us two things: time to coordinate and confidence that we were making the right choices for the Lab and townsite. We were able to mobilize resources ahead of the fire and build buffers to help firefighters on the ground. Thanks to this work, the Lab is better protected from fire than it has been in over a decade.
Though conditions can always change, today I am grateful to say that the Cerro Pelado Fire is mostly contained.
A sobering amount of time, labor and resources have gone into fighting this fire:
Firefighters/personnel on the ground: about 1,100 at peak
Money spent: over $30 million
Equipment: 47 fire engines, 15 helicopters, 2 scooper planes, 10 bulldozers
Laboratory personnel: Dozens, including wildland fire staff, emergency operations staff, communications staff and scientists
Although the Laboratory site and County were largely spared from wildfire damage, many of our neighbors in the Jemez—and those in the path of the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire—have not been so fortunate. Just as the Lab and the County united to respond to the Cerro Pelado fire, we must now come together to support those in Northern New Mexico who have lost so much.
Triad National Security, which manages the Laboratory, and many of our employees have contributed to All Together New Mexico’s fund for those impacted by fires. Please consider donating. As many of you know from experience, recovery will be difficult and our neighbors will need our help.