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The Los Alamos Cerro Grande fire: an abject, object lesson
The Los Alamos Cerro Grande fire: an abject, object lesson
Initiating perhaps the worst fire season in the last 50 years, the Los Alamos Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico caught the nation's attention in May when over 200 homes burned because a prescribed fire got out of control. Certainly, those who made mistakes should be held accountable, but more importantly, there are significant lessons for planners and other segments of government and society to learn from this fire.
The area around Los Alamos has a history of threatening wildfires. In the past 21 years, three major fires have broken out near the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has housed radioactive materials and toxic chemicals for decades. The Cerro Grande fire should not have come as a surprise.
According to an article in Forest Magazine by Keith Easthouse (September/October 1999), the three federal agencies that manage the wooded areas surrounding the laboratory (the US Forest Service, the US Department of Energy, and the National Park Service) were well aware of the potential for such a devastating fire. Although officials with these agencies had expressed concern for the risks and conducted prescribed bums and thinning on their lands, their agencies never received adequate funding for fire mitigation. Further, the agencies did not coordinate efforts to reduce risks until a 1996 fire threatened the laboratory.
Still, the federal Government was not alone in inadequately preparing for the Cerro Grande fire. When I visited the site, local folks said the county Government had lacked funding for mitigation, but more importantly, failed to recognize the seriousness of the problem or to actively search for funding. Likewise, residents and officials felt the Department of Energy should have taken their responsibility to mitigate risks more seriously.
A population increasingly at risk
Testifying before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health in June 1999, Janice McDougle, Deputy Chief of the Forest Service, noted that, in addition to changes in forest conditions, increasing numbers of people are moving from urban areas to rural areas near public lands. This in turn has increased the number of structures in wild lands near national forests, making them extremely vulnerable to fires. This trend, compounded by overly dense forests and accumulation of fuels, has created a volatile situation that must be addressed.
Building and rebuilding to prevent the next disaster
Although the Cerro Grande fire began as a prescribed burn, this fire could have just as easily started from a lightning strike or careless campfire. Instead of concerning ourselves with how the Cerro Grande fire started, we ought to pay greater attention to reducing risks and preventing future fires in susceptible areas. The fire should be an example of why building disaster-resistant communities of the sort called for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Project Impact is critical, why community planning is necessary to create such communities, and why, at the same time, more – not fewer – prescribed burns and other fuel management programs are needed. Development plans should be based on sound site planning, building design and construction, and landscaping that reduces the risks of living in a forested environment. Recognizing this need, the National Fire Protection Association's Firewise Communities program and the Institute for Business and Home Safety are working to provide communities with reliable wildfire mitigation information. There are reasons some homes in the Los Alamos region bummed and others did not. Too often, development plans emphasize fire trucks and sprinkler systems to deal with fire hazards. Instead, communities must address the consequences of sprawl and adopt alternative ways of developing. In the June 1995 issue of Planning magazine, William Fulton outlined some of the wildfire issues affecting California. He determined that adding fire standards to general plans and subdivision regulations is not enough to prevent devastation. What is needed, he concluded, is the political will to keep people from building in the woods. An oblique aerial photo of the Los Alamos area shows that the town is built at the base of a mountain on mesas surrounded by long, steep, forested canyons. The fire swept through the mountains and spread to various spots in the canyons. The houses that burned were in residential areas closest to the base of a forested mountain, and the greatest losses probably occurred in a newer subdivision tucked into the hills. These losses could have been reduced had the outer forested locations been avoided. Although controversial, limits to growth could have considerable potential for confining losses due to natural disasters. The city of Flagstaff and Coconino County in Arizona are proposing such growth boundaries under their new Regional Land Use and Transportation Plan. Encouraging compact development, growth boundaries, and infill, while using existing tools such as zoning, other laws and regulations, design review, and hazard mapping, could save property, and, in the future, lives.
Similarly, having reconstruction plans in place for Los Alamos prior to the fire would have enhanced land-use choices during rebuilding. Unfortunately, this careful process may be adversely affected by the federal Government's willingness to compensate victims quickly for their losses to allow rapid replacement of their structures. In this regard, the publication Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction, jointly published by the American Planning Association (APA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is an invaluable tool for planners interested in establishing plans before their communities burn.
The fundamental need
Awareness planners and land-use officials in general need to become better informed and willing to address all natural hazards issues. Although the APA's Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook, published in 1996, includes a chapter on natural hazards, the January 2000 issue of Planning magazine, a special edition devoted to smart growth issues, did not mention hazards and public safety planning, nor did the March 1999 issue of APA's Zoning News, which dealt with the implications of growth area designations. Many planning professionals and local officials have not yet realized the difference between protecting the environment and protecting a population. Nor have they made the connection between limiting growth in hazardous areas and greater community protection from natural disasters. Although much can be accomplished through land-use planning, we must recognize that it can only do so much. Protecting communities has to be a shared responsibility. Public planners are directed by the community and elected officials for whom hazard mitigation planning often is not a high priority. Clearly, awareness must be increased not only among planners but also among the people they serve.
Similarly, this hazard has not yet received the attention it deserves from the insurance industry. If homeowners pay less attention to wildfire mitigation because their buildings are insured or because there is no rate reduction benefit for undertaking mitigation, why should planners, governments, and other sectors of society try to make a difference?
No forested community is immune from a wildfire disaster. Lightning strikes and droughts will continue to occur (if not increase), campfires will get out of control, fuel will continue to accumulate, and more and more people will move into forests and the paths of forest fires. Is it not time we started looking at why we spend more money putting out fires and paying for lost homes than we do preventing these disasters?
Marie-Annette (Nan) Johnson
Natural Hazards Observer, Vol. XXV No. 1, September 2000