As drought and wildfires continue to devastate forests in Northern New Mexico and across the Western United States, it’s natural to wonder if we’re doing enough to keep our communities and lands safe. Smoky summer skies over Los Alamos and other surrounding communities provide yet another reminder that danger is just a spark away.
With that in mind, Los Alamos National Laboratory is taking measures to prevent wildfires and the dangers they present by carrying out unique firefighting strategies across its 42 remote square miles. The laboratory has a long history of using advanced science to analyze wildfires and expose hidden risks associated with fire-related air quality issues resulting from smoke and soot.
Using a combination of leading-edge science and pick-and-shovel work, we’re doing our best to reduce the threat here and beyond our state’s borders.
The laboratory has good reason to get involved. The 2000 Cerro Grande Fire destroyed 150,000 acres (including 7,500 acres of laboratory property) and 235 homes in the Los Alamos community. In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire burned more than 156,000 acres, once again threatening the laboratory and nearby homes and businesses.
Unfortunately, wildfires aren’t going away. To address the situation, the lab has conducted exhaustive assessments in the field, scrutinizing every acre of our sprawling wilderness property that includes sheer mesas, deep canyons and thick brush leading up to our tree-lined boundaries. And we’re not just doing this for ourselves — we’re also protecting nearby Native American pueblos, forests and cultural treasures such as Bandelier National Monument.
Our in-house wildfire mitigation team has taken a multipronged approach to finding solutions for dealing with our rugged surroundings. We have installed minimally invasive bridges in vulnerable areas so emergency vehicles and fire engines can haul full loads of water into a fire zone if disaster strikes. Crews have trimmed trees near power lines, cleared roadside brush and weeded undergrowth along fences.
Through these efforts, the laboratory’s wildfire management teams have also found ways to help our neighbors. In the summer of 2018, torrential rains and intense winds toppled about 2,500 trees in the Los Alamos area. The laboratory worked with Jemez Pueblo’s Department of Natural Resources to recycle much of the timber for use in the pueblo’s sawmill.
Being prepared and reducing fire fuel on forest floors is an all-around win. But as a national laboratory, we have a special ability to take the fight a step further.
The laboratory knows a lot about the science of fire. For years, we have been developing computer tools to help land managers and firefighting planners worldwide understand wildfire behavior. For example, the FIRETEC program can simulate how a fire spreads under various conditions. Understanding what drives big fires and how to predict their movements helps prepare for the next blaze using well-informed emergency plans and strategies.
This summer, the laboratory took a deeper look at another wildfire-relate danger — smoke. As suffocating plumes from Santa Fe’s Medio Fire wafted over the area, atmospheric scientists from the laboratory’s Center for Aerosol-gas Forensics, or CAFE — a mesa-top facility facing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that caught smoke particles on the breezes across the Rio Grande valley — completed the first-ever spectroscopic sniffing of fresh fire smoke in real time from “ignition to suppression” of a New Mexico wildfire. The aggregate of the smoke’s fine particles, reflectivity and mass determines the impacts on human health, local weather, air quality and climate.
Using the CAFE observations of fresh smoke, researchers can model fire emissions and how smoke disperses, which can support issuing appropriate air-quality alerts. For example, prescribed burns to manage fires emit a lot of smoke, and they need to be performed under conditions that minimize community exposure. While the dark soot containing smoke warms the regional and global climate, the white smoke has a cooling effect, and they both suppress rain. Hence, understanding the smoke properties over the fire lifecycle of several weeks is key to predicting their local, regional and global impacts.
When it comes to wildfires, the laboratory is in a great position to help protect local communities and assets through its scientific ingenuity and in-house protective forces. As dry conditions persist in the area, these resources will continue to work toward studying and stifling wildfires and to safeguard and inform laboratory employees and the public.