LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Even as smoke continued to billow from the Jemez Mountains that form this small city's scenic backdrop, signs of normalcy abounded here Tuesday, just two days after officials allowed residents to return to their homes: Traffic crawled along Trinity Drive; kids rode skateboards through Ashley Pond Park; coffee connoisseurs stood in line at the local Starbucks.
The mood among the city's 18,000 residents as the Las Conchas fire smolders is far more sanguine than 11 years ago, when the last major fire to threaten the city and its namesake nuclear weapons laboratory, the Cerro Grande Fire, destroyed about 350 homes. This time, however, Los Alamos was spared -- and residents have the Cerro Grande fire to thank for it.
"The Cerro Grande fire helped save Los Alamos, because while this fire did burn across the landscape, it burned less severely," said Rod Torres, chief of interpretation for nearby Bandelier National Monument and a spokesman for the interagency team working on the Las Conchas fire, which is now 40 percent contained.
The massive, fast-moving blaze -- at 136,955 acres, the largest on record in New Mexico -- burned in a mosaic pattern, scorching the treetops in some areas but bypassing other pockets of forest almost entirely.
The day the fire began, on June 26, unusually strong winds created "rolling vortexes" that barreled across the landscape "like rolling tornadoes," igniting 30 acres at a time, Torres said.
But on day two, the old Cerro Grande burn areas, identifiable by their scattered, standing dead trees and a thick, green carpet of new undergrowth, acted like a speed bump, dropping the fire to the ground and slowing it down, Torres explained. That allowed firefighters to set backburns more easily to try to contain the fire.
In some places, however, conditions were so dry that the fire ignited blackened trees leftover from the 2000 blaze, Torres added.
Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker estimated that about 10,000 acres burned by the Las Conchas fire overlapped with the footprint of the Cerro Grande fire.
Extensive thinning around the city of Los Alamos and the nuclear weapons lab, which sprawls across the southwestern edge of town, by the Forest Service, Los Alamos County and the lab after the Cerro Grande conflagration, also helped create a buffer around the community and the lab, officials said.
The fire came within 50 feet of Los Alamos National Laboratory, sparking fears that it could incinerate an old hazardous waste site on the property, but the lab's fuel reduction efforts paid off, officials said. And while no homes in Los Alamos were lost to the blaze, 63 residences in other communities were destroyed.
"In the areas where the treatments had been done, it was evident that the fire was not as severe," Torres said.
"I think they learned two things from the Cerro Grande fire," said Bryan Bird, a forest advocate with WildEarth Guardians, based in nearby Santa Fe. "They've learned to prioritize fuel treatments, to focus on communities, and also bring together all the players in large-scale restoration so there's buy-in ahead of time so they don't get challenges later on from organizations like mine. Once they get the agencies and organizations on board, it's easier to get things done."
A new plan
For much of the past year, officials with the Santa Fe National Forest -- partnering with Bandelier National Monument, where the 48,000-acre Cerro Grande fire began, as well as other federal and state agencies, pueblos and local governments -- have been crafting an unprecedented landscape-scale restoration initiative called the Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration program.
The 210,000-acre proposal, released three days after the Las Conchas fire began, came too late to clear fuels in advance of the new conflagration. But those involved with the project believe it will make a major difference in the long-term health of the forest and help prevent future megafires.
The plan calls for thinning smaller trees and using prescribed fire to return the area's ponderosa pine forests to a semblance of their historic structure, which was more open and park-like, with widely spaced trees towering above a grassy understory.
The Jemez Mountains project is one of 10 landscape-scale restoration efforts in the West that received funding last year under the Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The aim of the program, which Congress authorized in the 2009 omnibus public lands bill, is to "encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes," according to the Forest Service (Land Letter, Feb. 24).
Whether the Las Conchas fire will help or hinder public perception of the use of controlled burns as part of the Jemez restoration initiative remains to be seen. On one hand, the immensity of the blaze demonstrates the need for such projects. On the other, communities that have had to deal with lung-clogging smoke for weeks, both from the Las Conchas fire and other smaller blazes in the region, may be unwilling to tolerate more smoke -- even if it's from a prescribed fire.
"It will be a public relations challenge," Bird said, noting that the 2000 Cerro Grande fire resulted from a controlled burn that got out of control. "I think every time we have one of these large fire events, they burn themselves into the public psyche, and it takes a long time to get over the initial emotional shock. But after two major fires, I think we are learning that we live in a flammable landscape. We can manage the risk, or we deal with these very large fires."
While many residents were shocked to witness two major fires in the same area within about a decade, scientists point out that the ponderosa pine forests that blanket the Jemez Mountains and other areas in the Southwest evolved with fire, which historically burned every two to 10 years, according to studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey.
But since the late 1800s, when forest managers began extinguishing all fires instead of letting them burn and clear out brush, the region's forests have become overcrowded, causing a buildup of fuels. At the same time, climate change has warmed the area, and a current drought has reduced snowpacks, helping to create the perfect conditions for a megafire like the Las Conchas blaze, ecologists say.
"These changes threaten the health of forests in the Jemez Mountains," said Craig Allen, a research ecologist with USGS's Jemez Mountain Field Station in Los Alamos.
Fire and rain
The Las Conchas fire comes just as the Southwest's monsoon season is about to begin. But the much-needed moisture it is expected to bring also carries the risk of flash flooding. Burned soils are less able to absorb water, increasing runoff and erosion -- particularly in the steep canyons that drain the Pajarito Plateau, on which Los Alamos sits, into the Rio Grande, said Grant Meyer, a geomorphology professor at the University of New Mexico who studies erosion and sedimentation.
"There's a very high risk of flash flooding after this fire," he said. "Any place of relatively long, steep slopes, those are the places that are most vulnerable to erosion. On top of one of the mesas, [it's] no problem, but if you're in a canyon, you're in trouble."
Despite the close call of the region's second major fire in just over a decade, and the threat of flooding in the canyons as the monsoons arrive, many area residents say they have no plans to move elsewhere.
Tim Frybarger, a wildlife biologist with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department who lives in Los Alamos and has lived through both the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires, said he still prefers the city to nearby Santa Fe, where he works.
"Why leave now?" he asked, enjoying a breakfast burrito at a picnic table in Ashley Pond Park as smoke plumes rose from the mountains beyond. "There's nothing left to burn."
Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.