Chief Hughes: Rationale For Stage 3 Fire Restrictions

LAFD Fire Chief

To the Los Alamos County community – I fully understand the disappointment the community is experiencing by not being able to enjoy our wonderful outdoor surroundings due to the Stage 3 closures. While sympathizing with the feelings of loss, as someone who primarily gets all his exercise on the local trails, as the Fire Chief, I need to make sound decisions with public safety coming first. 

The Los Alamos County closure of our trail system only impacts the trails within the Los Alamos and White Rock townsites, including the interior canyons, like Pueblo and Bayo Canyons. The bulk of all available trails in the area are either Santa Fe National Forest or LANL/DOE owned, and subject to closures by those entities. Almost all the trails in the White Rock area are on DOE property, and the trails in Pajarito Acres are privately held and controlled by the homeowner’s association.

You can find this ownership data for all trail areas in the County on the Los Alamos County Assessor website under parcel maps.

The trails within the interior canyons of Los Alamos pose the greatest risk to our community. A new fire start in one of these canyons would quickly spread up the canyon walls and involve many homes that lie on the upper edge. I have personally witnessed the utter devastation affecting communities, such as Santa Rosa, CA, when fires quickly move through a developed community like Los Alamos. While our community is very beautiful and historic in nature, it is poorly designed to allow any rapid exodus in the event of a rapidly spreading wildfire. The mesas offer great views, but only one way out for a considerable number of people.

Los Alamos has experienced two fires in recent history that were very devastating and required evacuation of the community. Cerro Grande came into the community from the west and burned some residential neighborhoods in the western area and north community. Las Conchas did not burn into the townsite. The canyons on the interior of Los Alamos contain no burn scar and are well stocked with record-setting dry fuel that will fully support a fire that would almost instantly rise up into the crowns of the trees and get beyond what our firefighting resources can control.

Knowing these record-setting extreme fire influencing conditions exist, if I accommodated the requests to drop Los Alamos County out of a Stage 3 configuration, how would I explain my rationale for lifting these restrictions in the event a wildfire broke out and burned a significant portion of the Los Alamos townsite? How could I explain my rationale for dropping the Stage 3 restrictions when Santa Fe National Forest, Cibola National Forest, Carson National Forest, and LANL all retained the Stage 3 restrictions. My only answer would be that I thought the convenience of citizens was more important than the safety of the community as a whole, despite the fire behavior science provided to me by professional fire behavior analysts.

I have and will continue to receive significant criticism for moving our county to Stage 3 fire restrictions, but the criticism, while not pleasant, in no way would compare to the regret I would have if I didn’t use every possible tool available to reduce the threat of wildfire in our community. We only have to glance to the North to the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire to see what is now the largest fire in New Mexico history (double the size of Las Conchas and growing). Fortunately, the citizens in the path of this fire don’t live on top of multiple mesas with only one way out that could lead them directly into the path of a raging fire.   

I hope and pray we don’t experience a fire in the coming weeks before we can receive some significant moisture. The first night of the Cerro Pelado Fire was in a forested area that was not part of a burn scar. The area was in the process of being logged and was thinned to forest service standards. Even with the thinning, the fuel conditions being so dry, coupled with red flag conditions including 50+ mph canyon winds, this fire almost immediately rose into the crowns of the trees and pushed a spot fire out nearly two miles ahead of the main fire.

The Cerro Pelado Fire started nearly a month ago, when temperatures were much cooler and it had rained a few weeks before the start of the fire. Today, the temperatures are much hotter, and it’s been more than 50 days without any measurable precipitation. We continue to experience red flag days on a regular basis, which support extreme fire behavior and rapid growth. Fire conditions have only gotten worse with time.

I am sorry for the inconvenience Stage 3 causes the community, but public safety must come first, and all indications fully support extreme precautions during record setting, extreme fire potential conditions. I assure you we will immediately lift the restrictions when appropriate to do so. I am an avid outdoor person who has spent a considerable amount of time in our forests. My experience and familiarity with the forest was helpful during the Cerro Pelado Fire. I am quite likely just as anxious as you are to return to the forest and continue to explore.

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