Monday Marks 15 Years Since Cerro Grande Fire

The smoke plume from the Cerro Grande Fire May 11, 2000 reaches the panhandle of Oklahoma. Courtesy/NOAA

Staff Report

Monday marks the 15th anniversary of the Cerro Grande Fire.

The disastrous fire began as a controlled burn, and became uncontrolled due to high winds and drought conditions. More than 400 families in Los Alamos lost their homes in the resulting 48,000-acre fire. Structures at Los Alamos National Laboratory were also destroyed or damaged but there was no loss of human life. The US General Accounting Office estimated total damages from the Cerro Grande Fire at $1 billion.

Facts about the Cerro Grande Fire compiled from Los Alamos County reports:  

  • Prescribed Burn began May 4, 2000 in Bandelier National Monument on the Cerro Grande Peak, by the National Park Service.
  • Concerns escalated May 5 when high winds caused fire to grow out of control.
  • Fire continued to spread May 7 – Western Area evacuated.
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos Public Schools and the County all closed for business May 8 with 95 percent of the County’s Fire Department on duty fighting the fire – 3,000 acres burned.
  • May 9 showed slight decreases in the fire’s activity, due to a cold front, but the crews continued to fight spot fires in nearby Water Canyon and requested air support – LANL, Schools and County remained closed as a precaution.
  • Evacuation of the Los Alamos townsite’s population of 11,000 people occurred at 1:01 p.m. May 10 after winds gusting 75 mph caused the fire to jump Los Alamos Canyon, the last line of defense between the town and the fire – the entire town was successfully evacuated in just a few hours with no injuries and no mishaps.
  • Firefighting crews from surrounding communities and the State EOC joined in the fight to save homes in the Western and North Community, directly in the path of the fire storm – an estimated 5 million gallons of water were used in a 12-hour period.
  • Evacuation of White Rock and its 7,000 residents occurred at 1 a.m. May 11, just 12 hours after the first evacuation – most Los Alamos residents had evacuated to White Rock and were evacuated again to shelters in nearby communities.
  • An estimated 37,000,000 trees burned in the Cerro Grande Fire.
  • Total number of acres burned: 47,650.
  • Los Alamos County: 1,359 acres
  • US Forest Service: 28,983 acres
  • DOE lands: 7,439 acres
  • Initial damage assessment of homes was released to the public May 12, 2000: within Los Alamos, 208 structures burned and 357 dwelling units – more than 400 families lost their home.
  • On LANL property: 39 structures were destroyed.
  • No loss of life occurred and no injuries to civilians; three firefighters were injured.
  • White Rock re-opened to residents Sunday, May 14.
  • County employees worked around the clock to restore all water, sewer, electrical, gas and sanitation services within just a few days after the fire, to allow residents to return to Los Alamos as quickly as possible.
  • Los Alamos re-opened to residents Wednesday, May 16 – just one week after evacuation and well in advance of expectations — but with restricted access in those severely burned or damaged areas due to the hazards caused by the fire.
  • Firefighting efforts consumed:
  • More than 1,600 firefighters;
  • 65 New Mexico Fire and EMS agencies/organizations; and
  • More than $1 billion in loss/damages. 
  • Fire suppression operations directly saved 145 homes and indirectly saved over 4600 homes – one fuel mitigation project alone helped protect three subdivisions.
  • There was a projection of 60 percent loss of structures with an actual of only 10 percent realized, thanks to the determined and heroic fire-fighting efforts that took place May 10 and the days that followed while the community was in danger.
  • Thousands of volunteers donated time, money, food, clothing, shelter and support from across New Mexico and the surrounding states through organized and personal donations – also one of the largest outpourings of public support ever seen in New Mexico in response to such a catastrophe.
  • The fire was finally contained June 6, 2000, nearly one month after it began.
  • “Touch the Sky” (the bronze statue of the children lifting their hands to the sky which can be seen along Central Avenue at Ashley Pond Park) was created and dedicated to the community in a special remembrance ceremony one year after the fire, as a tribute to all who fought the fire in May 2000 and the thousands of County employees and community volunteers who gave their time and effort to rebuilding Los Alamos in the days and months that followed.
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