Los Alamos fire should be a warning to Sierra Nevada

The frightening thing about the fires near Los Alamos, N.M., is not that they were started by poor judgment by a federal employee.

No, what scares me is how easily a fire of that magnitude could descend on the Sierra Nevada on any given day in the hot months ahead.

Anyone who saw the Autumn Hills fire of 1996 has a clear recollection of how quickly that fire spread after it was started by a couple of kids dripping lighter fluid on a lizard.

In case you've forgotten, the Autumn Hills fire in the Kingsbury Grade area burned more than 3,400 acres, destroyed four homes and caused more than $2 million in damage.

By contrast, the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos has burned 47,000 acres - more than 10 times the area as Autumn Hills - and burned something like 120 homes. More than 1,200 firefighters were still working on it Thursday.

It seems unimaginable. But we should try to imagine the horror of such a fire for just a moment.

Here are some other statistics that might jolt you into considering the possibilities close to home.

Last year, in all, wildfires burned more than 100,000 acres in Sierra Nevada national forests. Although it was a high fire year, it wasn't necessarily unusual. Four times since 1977, fires have eaten up more than 100,000 acres of forest.

Over the last 30 years, there have been 34,719 fires reported in the forests of the Sierra Nevada. That's an average of three fires a day, every single day of the year, for 30 years.

Of those, 14,050 were started by humans. The rest were caused by lightning.

A quick look at a map shows a lot of those fires starting, not too surprisingly, in the areas where there are a lot of people - around Lake Tahoe.

The Forest Service and Park Service have put a stop to controlled burns for the next 30 days. The fire near Los Alamos was supposed to clear 900 acres of built-up fuels, but winds whipped it into an inferno.

It was clearly a tragic bit of miscalculation that led the New Mexico fire to be set. On the other hand, controlled fires are something of an oxymoron. We all know how unpredictable the winds and weather can be.

And it would take only a second of carelessness for someone to accidentally start a fire that could change our part of the world forever.

Last summer, for example, I was driving past the Forest Service office in South Carson and noticed the "Extreme" fire danger sign had been hung out front.

Just at that moment, I saw a passenger in a car flick a cigarette butt at the sign. Incredible!

I don't know if it was some act of defiance or sheer stupidity - or both - but it vividly reminded me of the potential for someone to put us all in danger.

The photos from Los Alamos, where they had just 45 minutes to gather up their possessions and flee, should give us all pause to consider what we would do in the same situation.

I've covered many wildland fires as a reporter. I've talked to too many firefighters - a lot of them college-age kids working their way through the summer - who risk their lives trying to stop or "control" a force of nature.

I listened to a few of them tell, with false bravado, how close they came to being swept up in the flames. One quick shift in the wind and they could have been trapped.

Far more of them talk with some measure of fear and respect for the danger involved in attacking a huge wildfire. I just remember thinking, "I'm glad I wasn't out there."

The fact is, crews have gotten very good at extinguishing wildland fires. They bring in the slurry bombers, they dump water from helicopters and they do the muscle-pounding work of clearing debris on the ground.

But the better they do at stopping wildfires, the more need is created for the "controlled burns" to clear out the forest floor and foster new growth. The Sierra Nevada, before it was overrun by mankind, regularly cleaned itself through natural fires. Not any more.

Another reality of wildland fires: All those federal resources out there - the planes, helicopters, engines and ground troops - are really intended to protect the forest. Protecting your house is up to the local fire department - and you, of course.

And while I have the utmost confidence in our fire departments, there's a limit to how much they can do to stop a wildland fire once it reaches populated areas.

The Los Alamos fire is the first and the worst of what could be a long fire season. There will be more, but we can only hope there will be none as terrible - and none close to home.

Barry Smith is managing editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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