A wall of flames snaking north along the edge of Los Alamos ignited thickets and set houses ablaze in an inferno that would sear itself into the community’s collective memory.
May 10, 2000, was the day the wind-driven Cerro Grande Fire roared into Los Alamos, destroying 235 homes and displacing more than 400 people. Homes would still be burning five days later, though no one would perish.
The monstrous wildfire, which began as a prescribed burn ignited by federal crews but raged out of control, also spread to Los Alamos National Laboratory’s forested lands, burning dozens of structures and threatening a facility that housed radioactive material.
According to a series of news reports at the time, recent interviews with residents and officials, and a detailed account published on the 10th anniversary of the blaze, the Cerro Grande Fire scorched 43,000 acres and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. It led to multiple investigations into what went wrong and propel federal agencies into a deep soul searching on how fire and land management policies should be revamped.
Fifty-year-old homes burst into flames one after the other, like fiery dominoes.
The mass burning of evacuated homes spewed thick smoke that darkened the sky, creating an apocalyptic overcast.
Residents’ burnt belongings left a toxic stench.
It was a hellish spectacle, one fire official recalled.
“It was pretty bleak and it was stinking,” said Larry Humphrey, who was the incident commander for the Southwest Area Unit 1 Team that handled the federal wildfire response. “A lot of smoke, a lot of wind blowing. You have ash falling out of the air, propane tanks exploding. It was otherworldly.”
Prescribed burn goes awry
The fire was named after the Cerro Grande peak, the spot where a 32-person crew lit a prescribed burn on the evening of May 4, 2000.
The National Park Service’s office at Bandelier National Monument was leading the burn. The purpose was twofold: Clear tree-clogged grasslands to reduce the increasing risk of a major wildfire and restore their meadow-like ecosystems so more diverse wildlife could thrive.
Bandelier’s managers had decided to conduct the burn in spring when conditions were drier, despite the higher risk of a runaway blaze, because past attempts at controlled burns there in the fall had failed.
But springtime also tends to be windy, which can more easily stoke a wildfire.
The decision to forge ahead in such dry and potentially windy conditions, when trees, grass and fuels — dead trees and forest debris — are more flammable, would be questioned, as would other perceived missteps.
Later, officials would find Bandelier managers had ignored forecasts that winds might kick up. The managers would claim the forecasts didn’t clearly raise red flags.
There also would be a report that a Los Alamos National Laboratory fire official told a Bandelier supervisor not to do a prescribed burn May 4 because fuels were extra dry. That would be a contentious point in more than one federal investigation.
Another sign of trouble was when the 12-person Northern Pueblo fire crew assisting in the burn began to tire that night and, as supervisors later would say, were not following instructions. The crew was ordered off the mountain.
That left 20 people to work the fire through the night, including a team that was supposed to rest and join in the morning when warmer temperatures would spread the fire faster.
Continuing with a depleted crew would be one of the actions most blamed for the Cerro Grande Fire.
“They didn’t have enough people,” said Tom Ribe of Santa Fe, author of the 2010 book Inferno by Committee, which recounts the Cerro Grande Fire with a critical eye. “They needed to have two or three times the people on the prescribed fire from Day One.”
Those overseeing the fire were in a hurry to get it done, which led to errors in judgment, said Ribe, a longtime public lands advocate.
The night of May 4, the crew tried to guide the fire south down a grassy slope. To contain it, they burned black lines on both sides of the fire. This went fine until the winds picked up and pushed the fire down the hill faster.
Crew members became exhausted trying to keep up without anyone to relieve them.
By 1:30 the next morning, Bandelier fire boss Mike Powell could see the fire was on the verge of going out of control. He drove to the Bandelier fire station and at about 3 a.m. called the Santa Fe National Forest dispatch center to request an emergency firefighting crew and a helicopter.
A man filling in for the regular dispatcher didn’t think he had the authority to deploy such a team for a controlled burn. He told Powell to call back at 7 a.m., when the shift supervisor was in.
When dispatcher John Romero arrived for his shift, he initially balked at sending any additional crews to the park service’s burn. At that time, the U.S. Forest Service didn’t have funds to assist in another agency’s prescribed fire.
But as he learned how hazardous the fire had become, Romero requested a team of U.S. Forest Service Hotshots and told their supervisor to treat it like a wildfire.
It took the Hotshots almost five hours to get there, partly because they were resting after fighting another forest fire.
The nine-hour lag for help to arrive after Powell’s initial call was costly.
The fire had grown into a huge blaze. In the early afternoon, the park service officially declared it a wildfire so federal government resources could be released to quell it.
Fire crews battled the blaze from the air and ground for two days. At one point, supervisors thought they were about to vanquish it, but it strengthened due to wind gusts of up to 50 mph. The blaze also hurled fiery embers, igniting spot fires that wreaked more havoc.
Despite the crews’ exhaustive efforts, the wildfire escaped Bandelier National Monument through a gap in the containment line near N.M. 4. It went up and over the upper Cerro Grande ridge May 7 and into dense forests that hadn’t been thinned in decades.
It consumed timber and fuels like a voracious beast, building into a megafire as it moved toward Los Alamos.
The fire burned through trees at a brisk clip toward the national lab May 7.
Crews were able to defend the lab by creating fire lines and extensive backfires to burn up fuels that otherwise would feed the wildfire. Previous tree thinning on the lab’s northern woods kept the fire from a huge nuclear waste storage site and other sensitive facilities.
Then the wind died and the temperature dropped, causing the fire to ebb and then smolder for two days southwest of Los Alamos.
Officials promptly evacuated the community’s west side.
On May 10, however, winds surged to more than 70 mph. They stoked the fire into a mammoth blaze and forced fire officials to ground helicopters and air tankers that could drop water and retardants.
The rest of the town was evacuated midday.
Wildland ground crews were ordered to safety zones, leaving no one to defend Los Alamos’ western perimeter.
Humphrey said he had no choice when facing 100-foot-high flames.
“You can’t do anything,” he said. “It’s moving too fast and it’s too hot.”
The fire crossed Los Alamos Canyon and consumed trees en route to the town. A Forest Service crew years before had cleared a swath of trees to form a firebreak on the western edge.
The wildfire cruised along the break, spitting hot embers as it brushed past a west-side neighborhood. The embers ignited a ground fire that destroyed a row of houses.
High winds continued to drive the wildfire north, burning some houses along the way. Then the fire collided with Burnt Mountain, also known as LA Mountain, which threw massive flames into a north-side neighborhood, causing houses to burn by the tens.
The fire could be capricious, reducing a row of houses to ash heaps but leaving an adjacent one intact.
Volunteer firefighters from surrounding towns rolled in to help put out structure fires. Firefighting forces in the area swelled to more than 650 people.
The hodgepodge of volunteer crews was chaotic and difficult to coordinate, leading most to simply douse fires they spotted, Humphrey said.
Meanwhile, a fire was swiftly spreading on the lab’s sprawling property. Despite the growing danger, Humphrey said he had to haggle with lab managers about letting firefighters into secure areas.
A high priority was protecting the tritium facility, which contained radioactive material.
Humphrey said a lab manager told him that “if it goes up, we’ll have contamination in the river all the way to Brownsville [Texas].”
Firefighters faced possible hazards from the soil, rocks and trees coated with a radioactive residue from explosives testing and old ordnance scattered, half-buried, on the grounds.
In the end, the fire never reached buildings with radioactive materials. But it destroyed 47 structures, including historic research buildings used during the Manhattan Project.
The wildfire inflicted the worst destruction on Los Alamos on May 10, although scattered houses would burn for another five days. It would go on to burn some homes in outlying areas and threaten historic sites such as the Puye Cliff Dwellings.
The fire also scorched slopes, mountain faces and ridges near the town, wiping out trees that would never return and permanently changing the area’s appearance.
Aftermath and investigations
The Cerro Grande Fire prompted federal investigations, including by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Many wildfires before and since have charred much more acreage and destroyed homes, but the Cerro Grande Fire had imperiled the Los Alamos lab, putting it in a different category, said Craig Allen, a research ecologist in U.S. Geological Survey’s New Mexico landscapes field station.
“One of the problems with the Cerro Grande Fire is it immediately became political,” Allen said.
Babbitt presented a report May 18, 2000, arguing many missteps had contributed to the fire: the short-handed burn crew; park service managers not heeding weather forecasts and other warnings; the Santa Fe National Forest dispatcher telling Powell to call back later; a crew lighting a backfire that worsened the wildfire instead of curtailing it.
The report led to more finger-pointing, conflicting accounts and denials. For instance, the Bandelier supervisor claimed the LANL fire official’s suggestion not to do the prescribed burn was a passing comment and not a warning. The LANL official agreed.
This was complicated further by a 2001 report by a park service board of inquiry that contradicted some of the Interior Department’s findings.
The later report concluded people had merely followed flawed internal policies that underestimated fire dangers.
Almost everyone agreed the underlying problem was land management that caused the forest to be clogged with tinder-like fuels.
If not for those built-up fuels, the Bandelier crew might not have felt so compelled to conduct the prescribed burn in bad conditions, Ribe wrote in his book. The fuels also enabled the wildfire to grow into an untamable inferno.
The Cerro Grande Fire and other large wildfires made federal agencies leery about prescribed burns for a time.
But in the past decade, they’ve incorporated tree thinning and controlled burns into forest management, which both Allen and Ribe agree is the best way to avoid calamitous wildfires.
“Fire is not an evil thing,” Allen said. “It is a normal thing.”