The wildfire that devastated nearly 50,000 acres of the Jemez mountains near Los Alamos, New Mexico, in May 2000, is a major example of the fallacy of using prescribed burning as the sole forest fire management tool. The policy of relying on prescribed burning is part of a larger policy shift in the management of government controlled land. The emphasis has shifted from a multiple-use concept to one of conservation and preservation. Under the multiple-use concept the US Forest Service (FS) controlled lands were managed in such a way as to attempt to bring balanced usage between Recreation, Timber, Resources, Watershed and Range. The balance, in a given area, between these factors was dependent upon a multitude of factors including the forest and land.
The argument that the Cerro Grande fire is the result of overzealous fire suppression is vacuous. In the past 100 years there have been relatively few fires to suppress in the Los Alamos area other than major fires. Except for a brief high fire danger season in May and early June, it is difficult to get material to burn in the Jemez mountains. In my years of hunting and hiking in the Jemez mountains, I have only found the remains of two small fires that had fire lines. I have seen occasional small smoke plumes after thunderstorms, but it appears that these fires have gone out without human intervention. There were charred stumps which indicated there had been fires in the past; however, I know of no studies that indicate the time and scale of those fires. There have been a number of wildfires on the Pajarito Plateau such as the recent one in Guaje Canyon. With the exception of the canyon bottoms, the Vegetation on the Pajarito plateau is sparse; under normal conditions the potential for spread of fires is small.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's there was extensive logging of the Ponderosa pine forests of the Pajarito Plateau. The logging technology limitations of that period did not allow logging in the steep canyons of the Pajarito Plateau and in the mountains of the Jemez Caldera. In the 1970's, there was extensive logging in parts of the Baca Land and Cattle Company holdings. The lumber company heavily logged the north rim of the caldera and Redondo Peak. The forests on the eastern boundary of the Baca Company were not logged. In particular, the forests on Cerro Grande Peak, within the Baca holdings, were not logged during that period. It is doubtful if these lands have ever been logged except for small areas near State Road 501.
In the 1980's, the Baca Company made overtures to transfer the Baca holdings to the Federal Government. The land on the south slope of Cerro Grande (Rio Frijoles watershed) was transferred to the National Park Service (NPS). The argument that these lands should be controlled by the NPS had some validity, as this land was the source of the Rio Frijoles (the centerpiece of the Bandelier National Monument). After nearly 20 years of discussions, it now appears that the remainder of the Baca holdings will be transferred to the USFS.
There have been two recent, major fires in the Los Alamos Bandelier National Monument, Santa Fe National Forest and Los Alamos (LANL). The La Mesa fire, in 1977, burned onto LANL property and caused much concern about fireproofing the western boundary of LANL and the Los Alamos townsite. I believe that it is possible to show that the actions taken at that time did have some positive effects in the control of the Cerro Grande fire. An improved road was built past Armstead Spring to the plateau on the north side of Water Canyon. A second road was improved in Valle Canyon onto the Plateau on the north side of Valle Canyon. A series of small logging operations along these roads, as well as cutting operations on the lower reaches of Pajarito Mountain, significantly thinned some of the forest. In addition, thinning operations were conducted along State Road 501 between the Lab and the forest, and along the western boundary of the townsite. A small selective cut logging operation on FS land, next to the NPS boundary on the lower end of the ridge leading to the South from Cerro Grande created a series of meadows on the part of the ridge under FS control. Extensive thinning of trees along SR 501 was also conducted on LANL lands. The felled trees were made available to the public for firewood. A caterpillar tractor fire line between the north end of the Cerro Grande ridge logging operation and the Armstead Springs road figured positively in the early stages of containing the Cerro Grande fire. The thinning operations along SR 501 stopped at the bottom of Water Canyon. The few acres of unthinned forest on the south side of Water Canyon may have contributed to the spread of the Cerro Grande fire onto LANL property and the unthinned timber on the north side of Camp May road seems to have been the source of the fire that spread to the north of Los Alamos Canyon on May 10.
The Dome Fire in 1996 was farther to the South, and burned mainly in the Santa Fe NF and Bandelier NM. This fire should have rekindled interest in forest thinning operations. However, pressure from environmental groups and conservation policies set in Washington, D.C., had essentially stopped any attempts at thinning the forests by means other than controlled burns.
In 1998, a man-caused fire burned several hundred acres on the north side of the ridge north of Santa Clara Canyon. This fire should have caused more concern to the Los Alamos citizens and government agencies, but it was too far away to create much public interest. A man caused forest fire occurred in the area between Water Canyon and Pajarito Canyon in the late 1950's or early 1960's. It burned about 500 acres on the mesas west of LANL between Water Canyon and Pajarito Canyon. This fire resulted in a fire break that provided some control over the Cerro Grande fire.
Another factor that had some effect on the spread of the Cerro Grande fire was the Pajarito Mountain Ski area. Strong efforts were made to protect the ski area during the fire. The combination of the fire control efforts and the fire breaks formed by the ski runs seems to have been effective in controlling the fire in the ski area and the area around Camp May on May 9 and early in the day on May 10. Except for extensive burning in the area around Never Shine Corner, the ski area and Camp May received very little fire damage.
By the spring of 2000, the forests of the Jemez mountains were not in a healthy state. In the upper reaches of many of the canyons, thickets of fir reproduction had developed, were killed by insects and then new reproduction had grown in the insect killed areas. In places, the thickets were nearly impossible to penetrate off the game trails. The "old growth" timber was far past maturity and beginning to die. Most of the areas, which had been thinned after the La Mesa fire, were beginning to regrow in brush and conifer reproduction.
The Cerro Grande fire had a complex pattern of spread over the two-week period of its growth. This fire was driven by two main factors. The predominant factor was the wind. The second main factor was the pattern of thick forest and previous fire barriers. The fire was started on May 5 by the NPS. The objective was to clear the thick forestation on the South Slope of Cerro Grande Peak. The fire burned downhill and upwind until early in the morning of May 8. On May 8 the wind increased and the fire began a run through thick timber, toward the NPS -FS boundary. The fire jumped over the ridge into the thickets at the head of Water Canyon and made a run directly toward the Los Alamos townsite. The fire was temporarily contained on the southeast side by the roads and previous thinning operations near Armstead Spring and on the mesa north of Water Canyon. The caterpillar tractor fire line between the Armstead Spring road and the top of the ridge prevented the fire from spreading to the South. The previous thinning operations along SR 501 and the LANL boundary held the fire so that burning out operations could improve that area of the fireline.
On May 9 the winds abated and the burnout operations along SR 501 continued. An attempt was made to improve the thinning and clearing along the western boundary of the townsite. There are reports that these efforts were resisted by some citizens who wanted to preserve the green boundary of the community. The fire burned slowly through the thinned area on the mesa north of Water Canyon and moved toward the top of Pajarito Mountain. Had the weather been favorable, the fire would probably have been contained at this point.
On May 10, the winds increased. At this time the fire was held along SR 501 and the Camp May road. On May 10 and 11 the wind speed was more than 50 mph. Wind gusts to 75 mph were recorded at the Los Alamos Airport. Three elements must be present for a fire to burn: fuel, oxygen and heat. A fire spreads by three main means: conduction, radiation, and convection. In a no-wind situation, convection carries heat upward and creates winds into a fire area. If the rate of burning is not too high, due to fuel concentration, then the effect of radiation will be to dry the surrounding fire area but conduction in forest floor fuels will be the prime means of fire spread. A strong wind changes the balance of fire behavior. The convection column is brought nearer the unburned fuels and increases the chance of fire spread by flames coming in direct contact with unburned fuel. The combination of steep terrain and strong wind reduces the chance of fire control. The flow of oxygen is increased and with sufficiently high wind speeds there is little that can be done to check fire spread. In the extreme conditions that developed in the Cerro Grande fire, burning branches were torn from trees and cast at least a mile ahead of the fire. The peak energy release may have been in the Megaton per hour range. Large wind swirls, induced by the terrain, may have helped to spread fire into the western area of the townsite. There is virtually nothing that can be done under these conditions except to attempt to control the direction of fire spread. Even this attempt at fire control is extremely hazardous. In the unstable spread conditions, firefighters can become trapped in a few seconds and their survival odds would be very small. Only heroic action on the part of both structural and wildland fire fighters kept the fire from spreading down Los Alamos Canyon and the deepest reaches of Pueblo Canyon. Had the fire advanced into these canyons, the entire Los Alamos townsite would probably have been lost.
On the May 25, I flew a member of the Ski Club over the Pajarito ski area to photograph the ski area. My comments on the first stages of the Cerro Grande fire are, in part, based on my observations from the air. The forest canopy in the mesa area above SR 501 is still green and the trees may survive the fire. I was allowed to tour the fire area in Water Canyon on June 7 to inspect the areas that are discussed in this report. The evidence in the forest, coupled with the information on the fire boundary location on each day, indicated that the thinning operations, road construction and previous fire line construction helped to direct the fire to the north. The areas south and east of the fire barriers was not burned in the May 8 outbreak and the areas on the north side of Water Canyon were, in some cases, only lightly burned in the later stages of the fire. In the fir forest above the mesas, where there are no roads and where there has never been any logging, the devastation is nearly complete.
"Controlled Burning" is a viable tool among several other tools that can be used to control wildfires in forests and communities. Other tools that can and should be employed, in a balanced manner, include logging, thinning (by various means including firewood gathering by the public), road and trail construction, brush removal and grazing by livestock. Aggressive fire suppression must be employed during the times of greatest fire danger whether the land is maintained by the NPS or USFS. The charters of the NPS and FS differ greatly. The NPS mission is to preserve a few areas of especially scenic and/or cultural value. This mission for the NPS should be maintained as such and not used as a means of conserving land that would be better managed by the Forest Service (US Department of Agriculture) or Bureau of Land Management (US Department of the Interior). The FS should be allowed to carry out its traditional mission of managing the FS lands under a multiple use plan that makes the resource of wild lands available of all US Citizens. Reasonable people may disagree on the balance of usage of FS, lands but the needs for timber, grazing, watershed, minerals and recreation have historically been a part of the American culture in the past, and will be felt in the future. The FS has set some of its lands aside for many years as Wild or Wilderness areas to be used primarily for recreation. There are other areas that, although they have some scenic value, are primarily suitable for timber and watershed management.
The fire control planning in Los Alamos County was basically good; however, in some respects it did not go far enough. Given the weather preceding and during the Cerro Grande fire it might have been difficult to contain the fire even if stronger measures in fireproofing the forests of the Jemez mountains had taken place. From one's armchair it is easy to point out that there were weak spots in the defense such as the thickets on the south side of Water Canyon and near "Never Shine Corner" on the Camp May road. The thinning of the Ponderosa forests west of the LANL property appears to have done some good in delaying the fire but thinning in the subalpine fir forests was not done for a multitude of reasons. A considerable source of danger to the community remains. The vegetation in Los Alamos canyon, Pueblo Canyon, and the side drainages such as Deer Canyon is far too dense. A prime example is the pine reproduction near the Airport Fire station. While a green area on the approach to the community is attractive, the loss of this fire station during a major fire would be catastrophic. As the forests of the Jemez mountains regrow, management of those forests from the standpoint of fire control must be a major consideration. A balance must be struck between the desire of having a beautiful wilderness setting for the community and having a surviving community.
The National decisions that have lead away from a balanced multiple use policy in forest management to a policy of preservation must also be examined. The cornerstone of the preservation movement has been the use of "Controlled Burns" to remove excess materials from the forest. As we have seen in the case of the Cerro Grande fire as well as in the cases of the recent fire near the Grand Canyon, the fire near Redding, California last year and even in the Yellowstone National Park fire, these fires can rapidly become uncontrolled. An uncontrolled fire can do far more ecological damage than the use of other forest management tools. Return to top of page