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Essentials for Evacuation: What to Do When Your Town Faces Forest Fire or Wildfire

Updated on February 26, 2014

View of Cerro Grande path around skihill

The fire was blown down into the canyon by the wind. Like many Southwest canyons, the canyon's south side was heavily forested; on the north side vegetation was lighter but wind and terrain favored the fire.  Water at the bottom saved trees there.
The fire was blown down into the canyon by the wind. Like many Southwest canyons, the canyon's south side was heavily forested; on the north side vegetation was lighter but wind and terrain favored the fire. Water at the bottom saved trees there. | Source

LANL photo rights information

Unless otherwise indicated, this information has been authored by an employee or employees of the University of California, operator of the Los Alamos National Laboratory under Contract No. W-7405-ENG-36 with the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. Government has rights to use, reproduce, and distribute this information. The public may copy and use this information without charge, provided that this Notice and any statement of authorship are reproduced on all copies. Neither the Government nor the University makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any liability or responsibility for the use of this information.

Lessons from Los Alamos forest fires: Cerro Grande in 2000, Las Conchas in 2011

How do you prepare to evacuate from a wildfire? Maybe you want to learn about evacuating in general, or what a forest fire can do when it meets a town. Or maybe you, like many scientists scattered around the world, have been to Los Alamos and are interested in hearing what Los Alamos residents did during the fire in 2000 known as the Cerro Grande fire, which seemed so destructive at the time (10% of Los Alamos was affected). Or maybe you saw the reports of the Las Conchas fire in 2011, which was so big (burning more acreage in one day than the Cerro Grande fire ever burned) the Cerro Grande became just the dress rehearsal and firebreak for it.

Here are some lessons Los Alamos residents learned from the Cerro Grande fire and the Las Conchas fire, that threatened the mountain town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, 11 years apart. This HubPage is intended to be a work in progress as I collect more information, such as the experiences of a disabled woman who was one of the last evacuated in 2000, so please check this page again later on if you're interested. I also hope to upload some pictures I took on a trip to Los Alamos. But meanwhile I want to get at least some information out there, as the 2012 fire season starts.

A unique forest fire situation many can learn from

Los Alamos is a unique town. It is a small town not on the way to anywhere that draws highly educated residents from many nations to work or consult at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since the Lab works on many things related to national security, anything affecting that work gets attention nationwide if not worldwide. (For instance, in 2000, Russia offered to send some airplanes to help with this fire right next to closed-off airspace. No thank you, was the answer!)

The town of Los Alamos borders two Indian pueblos on its north and east. The Lab is south of the town, and the south border of the Lab is Bandelier National Monument. Forest fires don't recognize the boundaries between land belonging to the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Santa Clara Pueblo, Department of Energy, Los Alamos County, and the State of New Mexico. You can imagine how complex the interagency cooperation gets! The 2000 fire started from a controlled burn that escaped partly due to communication problems.

The lab and the town of Los Alamos lie on the border between growth patterns. To the east is lower elevation with prickly pear cactus, grass clumps, and light pinon and juniper growth, and to the west is higher elevation with ponderosa pine forests and streams that run at least in the spring.

Like many forests through the 20th century, the forest around Los Alamos became thicker and thicker as forest fires were prevented rather than controlled. But some agencies were recognizing the dangers and trying to thin the forest. There was criticism in 2000 of the controlled burn that started the Cerro Grande fire because it was such a dry time to be starting any fire. But as the facts came out, people learned the fire was deliberately planned for a very dry time so that fuel in the area would burn well, controlling future fires for the long term.

Most of the town has good fire lines (streets) that normally would be good protection from forest fire. The houses that burned in 2000 were mostly houses around the western edges that in many cases were literally surrounded by trees. But with strong winds carrying heat and burning materials, and water pressure lost at a critical point of the fire, there were also many houses well into town that were completely destroyed.

Many scenic mountain cabins are more at risk than a lot of the houses that burned in Los Alamos. Lessons from Los Alamos can be helpful to those who live in fire country.

Ten years after one fire, one year before another

Evacuating from a wildfire

If things are drying out, be prepared! There are many things you can do long before an evacuation that will make evacuating much easier on you.

Wildfire evacuation - the year before

If you live in fire country, watch as conditions change:

  • Pay attention in a drought, to things like pine needles on trails being crunchy to walk on when they are usually a soft cushion underfoot.
  • Was last year a wet year? Was there a lot of new undergrowth last year, which this year is drying and dying?
  • Is it particularly windy this year? Besides driving fire past fire lines, wind can suck moisture out of vegetation and the ground very quickly.

Paying attention to what is happening in the nature around you may alert you to what's going on long before anybody mentions fire season.

Wildfire evacuation - as the weather warms

Pay attention to local announcements of fire conditions, and take them seriously. (If it gets to be the Fourth of July, substitute water games for fireworks!)

  • Make a list of your family's expensive, essential, identifying, and irreplaceable things: pets, pictures, birth, marriage, and military records, computer hard drive, family heirlooms, check book, credit cards, etc. Don't forget to look through your attic and basement; many of these things get stored in hard-to-reach places because they aren't in daily use.
  • Prioritize your list, making it a checklist of what to grab first if time is running out. Consider pre-packing or at least making a pile, so that the most important things are easy to get fast.
  • Which things will fit in a car? (If you are thinking of taking two cars, consider all the ways two drivers could get separated in an evacuation.)
  • Do you need anything special to make your stuff portable? (Pet carrier? Padded anti-static box for hard drive? Straps to fasten an antique record player to the roof of a car? Tarp to protect it from weather while up there?)
  • Leave space in the car for the most irreplaceable items - your family!
  • Take a video tour of your house, opening all the closets and cabinets. Then find a place for the video away from your home, such as a safety deposit box. If anything happens to your house, this will be useful for insurance purposes, but also for answering questions such as "did we have that book then or did we lend it to your uncle?"
  • Move, rake up, cut back, or cut down combustible things near the house (firewood, bushes, brush, leaf piles, pine needles, easily burned trees, wooden outdoor furniture, etc.) You need a cleared space for at least 30 feet around your house.
  • Do you have propane tanks, or other volatile gas containers? Do something about the risk of them getting hot, exploding, and spraying hot metal fragments in all directions.
  • Make sure your car is in good condition (including the radio!), and keep your tank full.

Wildfire evacuation - as you're seeing and smelling smoke

You may have just hours left, or it could be days. Stay alert while you wait.

  • Watch and listen for news, and keep your family close by. Just ignore the cabin fever - anybody who decides to go off where they can't be contacted could endanger the whole family looking for them.
  • Have your essentials packed (for you-don't-know-how-long) and in the car.
  • Park your car facing out of the neighborhood, so you don't have to back into traffic. That helps traffic move along and reduces the chance of accidents.
  • If the fire gets close enough, gas and electricity will be cut off. Consider the effect on your computers or appliances. Water probably won't be shut off (to give anyone who stays to fight a forest fire with a garden hose at least a small chance). If there's any possibility of freezing weather, remember gas off + water on = burst pipes.
  • Close all windows, vents, and any other openings - even tiny cracks let in enough smoke and ash to make a big mess.
  • Move away from the house any vehicles you aren't taking. Houses catch fire easier than vehicles, so your car could be safe on the street but melted in the garage.
  • Who all will be in the car with you for however long it takes to get through the traffic and away? What about extra diapers? Formula? Medication? Protein? Special foods? Water?

Cerro Grande smoke plume

This May 11, 2000 satellite image of the Cerro Grande smoke plume seems a normal way to look at a fire now, but was something of an Internet novelty in 2000.  Private satellite companies were just starting to realize the potential of such images
This May 11, 2000 satellite image of the Cerro Grande smoke plume seems a normal way to look at a fire now, but was something of an Internet novelty in 2000. Private satellite companies were just starting to realize the potential of such images | Source

Why to evacuate from a wildfire

As the Cerro Grande fire threatened In 2000, I thought if I lived in Los Alamos, I'd want to stay and fight the fire. But I changed my mind after I heard what a fire threatening houses is like.

When you hear your area is being evacuated:

  • Go, and go now. Even if your part of town isn't evacuated yet, consider leaving now so you don't get stuck in the main rush.
  • Go to save your skin. Even a wooden house can stand up to direct flame for a few minutes. How long do you think your skin will hold out?
  • Go if you are proud of not smoking. Your house is replaceable; your lungs are not, and the smoke is only going to get worse.
  • Go to get away from firebombs. You should have taken care of your propane tanks by now, but has any of your neighbors forgotten one? In Los Alamos, propane tanks flying over fire lines caused some houses to catch fire several streets away from the main burn area.
  • Go to help the firefighters. Your presence will distract them from their overall strategy. They may already be defending your house at the cost of their own. One Los Alamos firefighter lost his, his mother's, and his sister's home while he fought the fire on another side of town.
  • Go for the sake of elderly neighbors who need to be out of harm's way but who will stay put for fear of looters unless they see everyone leaving. The more complete the evacuation is, the easier it is on the police too.
  • Go because a garden hose is not the tool for fighting forest fires. Besides, the water supply you're depending on could quit, as in part of Los Alamos the night the fire hit town.
  • Go because right now you can choose to. As the 2000 fire approached the edge of Los Alamos the first sight through the smoke was a 120-foot tongue of flame coming out of the canyon. Would you see that and reconsider leaving? Are you sure you could get out?

The evacuation - on your way out

Drive carefully. People are already scared; don't add accidents to the traffic jam. Keep calm and help others around you keep calm; depending on your roads, you may even have to drive toward the fire for a while to get away from it. Many small towns in forested areas have the same problems as Los Alamos: limited exits due to local terrain, and a major route for traffic crossing the main exit route.

It helped a lot in Los Alamos that the Lab was closed; otherwise half the people would have been crossing traffic, heading back into the neighborhoods to join their families. (You don't want to be picking up two kids from different schools and a spouse from work while everyone else is already leaving!) It also eased traffic to have the neighborhoods closest to the fire evacuated days before the others.

Even so, the last people leaving in 2000 were seeing flames coming over the ridge, and some people drove toward the fire (in slow traffic!) a long way in order to get to the exit road. The last people evacuated only a few hours before the first houses burned to the ground.

While you're evacuated

The wait to return is going to be hard; pick a place to stay that is as comfortable as possible, whether with friends or family, or at a hotel. It might be a good time for a mini-vacation, to keep your mind off things you have no control over anyway. On the other hand, the closer you stay the easier it is to get the latest news (a fire threatening Los Alamos that gets constant news updates in Santa Fe, might be barely mentioned in Denver.)

In 2000, blogs were still "weblogs", but in 2011 the combination of the local radio station's Facebook page, other local news sites, firefighting websites, county and state government websites, and webcams allowed former residents of Los Alamos to follow the fire almost minute-to-minute from across the country and the world. (From another state, I got to watch as the fire crept up the back side of the Los Alamos ski-hill...until the webcam went black.)

Another consideration for where to stay; if you have something important in the mail, the Post Office may find a way to work with evacuees nearby. In both fires, they set up temporary mail centers near Los Alamos.

Remember your car is filled with valuables. Pay attention to where you park it.

Returning after an evacuation

Most likely you will still have a house to go back to. You'll want to get back as soon as possible - so will everybody else, especially those who lost their house and want to see if anything is left. Try to be patient. If the fire did get close your house may have smoke and ash in it. You'll probably have food to throw out, especially if power was off, and if so, so will everybody else. You may have to get creative to find a place to put spoiled food where you don't have to deal with the smell but where it won't attract animals.

Fire origins

Cerro Grande:
Cerro Grande, New Mexico 87025, USA

get directions

Area where the 2000 fire started

Las Conchas:
Las Conchas, Santa Fe National Forest, NM 87025, USA

get directions

Area where the 2011 fire started. The direction the fire went toward Los Alamos was similar both times, directed by wind and forest.

Bandelier National Monument:
Bandelier National Monument, 15 Entrance Rd, Los Alamos, NM 87544, USA

get directions

Bandelier was affected by past fires in the area, such as the La Mesa fire in the late 1970s, but the Las Conchas fire devastated much of Bandelier.

Cerro Grande fire pictures

Cerro Grande Canyons of Fire, Spirit of Community
Cerro Grande Canyons of Fire, Spirit of Community
Impressive photos and maps showing the results of the Cerro Grande fire.

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