Cerro Pelado’s response reminds us of the importance of community

By THOM MASON
Director
Los Alamos National Laboratory

I heard a lot about the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires before I came to New Mexico to lead Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2018. But experiencing a significant event like Cerro Pelado first-hand deepened my respect for the wildfires and the power of the community to help when needed.

Many people have gone above and beyond over the past month: to keep our communities informed, to shelter evacuees, and to prevent Cerro Pelado from becoming a full-scale disaster.

Los Alamos County and the lab have a great symbiosis on many counts, including emergency response. Past forest fires have underscored the importance of this partnership. When this fire started, county and laboratory emergency management teams immediately began coordinating firefighting resources and, with the National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos field office, ensuring that our plans were aligned to protect the community of Los Alamos and the lab site.

We have received tremendous support from many stakeholders, including the local DOE Office for Environmental Management in Los Alamos, Federal Fire Command teams, and Federal agencies that manage the lands adjacent to the lab. , including the US Forest Service and the National Park Service.

From the start, these partners made a collective and strategic decision to share fire information widely and often. We have worked hard to proactively respond to community concerns, with the goal of helping people make the best decisions possible 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 materials, improving fire roads, purchasing 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 area. This slow growth is due in part to more than 1,000 firefighters who have gone to great lengths to keep our homes and businesses safe. Type 1 crews from the Red South Zone and Grand Bassin worked 16 hours a day to bring the fire under control, and they did so in a safe and professional manner.

Their efforts gave us two things: time to coordinate and confidence that we were making the right choices for the lab and the townsite. We were able to mobilize resources before the fire and build pads to help firefighters in the field. Thanks to this work, the Laboratory is better protected against fires than it has been for more than a decade.

Although conditions can always change, today I am grateful to say that the Cerro Pelado fire is largely contained.

Sobering time, labor and resources have gone into fighting this fire:

  • Firefighters/ground personnel: around 1,100 at peak
  • Money spent: over $30 million
  • Equipment: 47 fire trucks, 15 helicopters, 2 scooper planes, 10 bulldozers
  • Laboratory personnel: dozens, including wildfire personnel, emergency operations personnel, communications personnel, and scientists

Although the lab site and the county were largely spared from the wildfires, many of our Jemez neighbors – and those in the path of the Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak fire – did not had this chance. Just as the lab and the county came together to respond to the Cerro Pelado fire, now we must come together to support those in northern New Mexico who have lost so much.

Triad National Security, which operates the lab, and many of our employees have contributed to the All Together New Mexico fund for those affected by the fires. Please consider making a donation. As many of you know from experience, the recovery will be difficult and our neighbors will need our help.

Be careful.