LAFD Cautions Community To Be Ready For Potential Evacuation With Current Hot And Dry Conditions

Los Alamos Fire Marshal Jeff Wetteland, left, and Wildland Division Chief Kelly Sterna this morning reviewing details of the Ute Park Fire between Eagle Nest Lake and Cimarron. Photo by Maire O’Neill/ladailypost.com
 
 
By MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos Daily Post

Los Alamos Fire Marshal Jeff Wetteland and Wildland Division Chief Kelly Sterna said this morning that it is time for community members to think about having a go-bag ready and follow the “Ready Set Go” recommendations on how to be prepared for evacuation if necessary.

“It’s time to be real. We’ve got to be ready. Any sort of ignition could become a catastrophic event very quickly and you should be ready to grab your important belongings and go,” Wetteland said.

This morning Los Alamos County went into Stage III fire restrictions in coordination with the Forest Service and Los Alamos National Laboratory as neighbors, he said.

“One of the reasons you go from Stage 2 to Stage 3 aside from increasingly dry and hot conditions is fires in the area. We did get a few starts and some reckless human behavior in the Jemez over the last couple of weeks which made the Forest Service decide to shut the forest down,” Wetteland said.

He said access to the forest and trails for the safety of the people who would be in those areas because the fire behavior is so out of control that emergency responders would have a hard time getting to the people before the fire did.

“So we’re looking out for the safety of the community,” Wetteland said.

He said LAFD personnel have been fielding dozens of questions since the restrictions were announced yesterday. Many of those questions he said relate to barbecue grills and that people are asking  permits for mostly for cooking operations using smokers and charcoal grills. He said the operations LAFD is going to permit include construction operations that are well-mitigated and have suppression capabilities onsite as well as mitigation efforts such as tree-thinning that are safely operating under a permit issued by him.  

“We are getting lots of questions about Camp May campground which is going to be shut off completely to the public. The ski hill, which is private property, will be open for hiking and special events that have LAFD personnel on standby with fire suppression capabilities,” Wetteland said, adding that Pajarito Mountain Ski Area manager Tom Long is a critical thinker where fire danger is concerned and that the ski hill has proven to be a good partner and neighbor in this regard.

“I want to reiterate that even operating within the restrictions at this time can be dangerous. I don’t know that we’ve seen conditions this dry before. It’s very similar to how conditions were in the Las Conchas fire when we heard from Forest Service firefighters that they had never seen fire behavior like that. From what I understand that’s the kind of fire behavior they’re getting at the Ute Park Fire right now,” Wetteland said.

“While we understand how inconvenient this can be for people’s plans, especially pre-planned events, it is hard for us to stomach allowing any restricted activities to continue when our livelihood as a community, all our natural resources, all the beauty we have left in the forest is up for grabs right now with one fire. There just aren’t many of us here in the fire department that are willing to take chances on restricted activities right now. There are certain activities we will allow with a cloak of safety wrapped around them that we deem to be necessary or mission-critical but we won’t be supporting any recreational use of our trail systems or any cooking or fire operations that are outside our restrictions until we get a significant amount of rain,” he said.

Chief Sterna said LAFD sent Brush Truck 1 with Driver/Engineer Van Leimer, Capt. Dan DeVall and Firefighter Bradley McCollum to the Ute Park Fire late Thursday night. He said the speed with which that fire grew from 150 acres to close to 10,000 acres is scary.

“Our 1,000 hour fuels, which are trees that are 12 inches in diameter or above are at three to four percent of their normal moisture. We are in a moisture deficit that hasn’t been seen since the Cerro Grande Fire,” he said.

Sterna stressed the importance of staying informed about fires in the area and suggested monitoring local news websites as well as being aware of what Stage III restrictions involve.

Wetteland said that while he realizes that the restrictions are inconvenient for people and LAFD is sympathetic to effects of the restrictions for the public, the Department has to be firm in enforcing them in these record dry conditions. He said LAFD is fortunate that the Los Alamos community understands the need for the restrictions and adheres to them.

“This makes our lives easier at LAFD during these dry times as we try to keep the community safe,” he said.

Wetteland also warned that for anyone operating outside the restrictions who causes an event, there are some pretty heavy fines and criminal charges that can be faced as well as liability for all damages.  He advised community members to listen to and follow directions from law enforcement and fire personnel at all times in the event of a fire.

In the time frame that Wettland and Sterna were chatting with the Los Alamos Daily Post, LAFD was responding to three simultaneous calls; a gas leak, a fire alarm going off and a traffic accident.

The order imposing fire restrictions is posted on the Los Alamos County Website. Fire restrictions for Los Alamos County and throughout New Mexico can be found at https://firerestrictions.us/nm/fire and fire updates are posted on the New Mexico Fire Information Website at www.nmfireinfo.com.

For more information on preparing for an evacuation, see the Ready Set Go program at http://www.wildlandfirersg.org/Resident.

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