Staff ride to the Cerro Grande Fire

 

From February to April of 2000, the staff at the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico prepared and approved a plan for the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Burn project. This plan covered a project area of approximately 1,000 acres located in the northwest portion of the Bandelier National Monument and adjacent to the Santa Fe National Forest.

The primary purpose of this prescribed fire was to reduce hazardous fuels in the burn unit. The burn plan defined implementation of the full project to be completed in three sequential phases.

On May 4, 2000, Bandelier National Monument employees began Phase 1 of the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Burn. Phase 1 of the prescribed fire eventually escaped the planning boundaries. It ultimately spread into the town of Los Alamos, destroying 235 structures and spread onto lands administered or owned by the Santa Fe National Forest, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the San Idelfonso and Santa Clara Pueblos.

Lessons learned from the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Burn and the subsequent Cerro Grande Fire resulted in a revision of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy.

The Cerro Grande Fire Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Julian Affuso - U.S. Forest Service, Lincoln National Forest
  • Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group
  • Chad Fisher - National Park Service, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Emily Irwin - U.S. Forest Service, Fire Use Training Academy
  • Aaron Jones - U.S. Forest Service, Gila National Forest
  • Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Bequi Livingston - U.S. Forest Service, Region 3
  • J.W. McCoy - U.S. Forest Service, Carson National Forest
  • Marla Rodgers - National Park Service, Bandelier National Monument
  • Ryan Swartz - Bureau of Land Management, Boise Smokejumper Base
  • Jim Whittington - National Park Service, Bandelier National Monument
  • Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management, National Wildfire Coordinating Group
  • Mary Zabinski - U.S. Forest Service, Region 3

Special thanks to the following individuals for the interagency support of this effort:

  • Dave Bott - Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico State Office
  • Ken Castro - National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Region
  • L. Dean Clark - National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Region
  • Gary Kemp - National Park Service, Bandelier National Monument
  • Al King - National Park Service, National Interagency Fire Center
  • Tom Zimmerman Ph.D. - U.S. Forest Service, Region 3

Click the image to open a larger image.

Travel map

Travel map

Topo map with NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown

Topo map with NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown

 
Land ownership map for the Los Alamos area

Land ownership map for the Los Alamos area

3D map showing ignition sequence for May 4-5, 2000

3D map showing ignition sequence for May 4-5, 2000

 

Audio/Visual References:


Google Earth fly-around animation of Cerro Grande Peak.


National Park Service website for Cerro Grande Fire information

*These  documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Collection of newspaper articles:

Documents and Publications

Local Contact Information

Bandelier National Monument
HCR 1, Box 1, Suite 15
Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544-9701
Phone (505) 672-3861

The Cerro Grande Fire began as the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Burn on the Bandelier National Monument. It escaped prescription on May 5, 2000, and became known as the Cerro Grande Fire due to the fire being on Cerro Grande Mountain, a prominent geographic feature of the area.

As you approach the staff ride area from Los Alamos you will see Cerro Grande Peak and the fire scar from the May 2000 Cerro Grande Fire. This picture was taken from the Bandelier Fire Center on August 2005.

As you approach the staff ride area from Los Alamos you will see Cerro Grande Peak and the fire scar from the May 2000 Cerro Grande Fire. This picture was taken from the Bandelier Fire Center on August 2005.

The town of Los Alamos and adjacent Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL) had been threatened previously by fire. The La Mesa Fire occurred in 1977 and burned 15,300 acres, taking 10 days to control. The fire did not serve as a wake-up call for land management agencies or LANL.

In 1996 the Dome Fire threatened the LANL and Los Alamos and was another huge wake-up call. During this fire, there was a fire engine burned over and deployment of fire shelters. As a result of the Dome Fire, a local "Interagency Working Team" was organized. The team's focus was on hazardous fuels reduction, interagency communications, and cooperation. The team consisted of the Department of Energy, LANL, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico State Forestry Division, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service.

Bandelier National Monument had an approved Management Plan in 1997 that allowed for a full range of management including suppression, wildland fire use, and prescribed fire. A 10-year prescribed fire program was identified in the plan. The primary fire management concern in the Park was Upper Frijoles Canyon. Park fire managers were concerned that a potential ignition during extreme fire danger would burn out of the Park, threatening the town of Los Alamos and the LANL.

There is an established parking area that can be used for the staff ride. This is a view of the parking area as you approach from the east (Los Alamos) on Highway 4. The parking area has room for approximately 15 vehicles.

There is an established parking area that can be used for the staff ride. This is a view of the parking area as you approach from the east (Los Alamos) on Highway 4. The parking area has room for approximately 15 vehicles.

A good site for Stand 1 is these rocks at the head of Frijoles Canyon looking down the canyon toward the Bandelier National Monument Headquarters. This location is about 100 yards south of Highway 4 and about ¼ mile east of the parking area.

A good site for Stand 1 is these rocks at the head of Frijoles Canyon looking down the canyon toward the Bandelier National Monument Headquarters. This location is about 100 yards south of Highway 4 and about ¼ mile east of the parking area.

 

The Baca Ranch (currently referred to as the Valles Caldera Trust) is located northwest of Cerro Grande Peak with the boundary located in the saddle west of the peak. This first stand is accessed from the parking area by hiking directly up Frijoles Canyon.

After working a regular workday in preparation of the Upper Frijoles Prescribed Burn implementation, Upper Frijoles prescribed fire personnel including a 10-person Type II crew and 10 NPS employees hiked approximately 2½ hours up Cerro Grande Peak to attend a second operational briefing from the Burn Boss at 1900 on May 4, 2000. At 1920, a test fire is ignited near the summit of Cerro Grande Peak. The test fire is successfully completed and the fire behavior is within parameters. The go-decision is made to continue the prescribed fire by the Burn Boss.

Crews began blacklining by burning down the northeast edge of the fire from the test fire area. The holding crew will use backpack pumps, spruce bows, and changes in fuels and terrain to limit fire spread during blackline operations. Progress was slow using the ignition pattern outlined in the plan. The ignition pattern was changed to speed up the progress and the decision made by the burn boss to stop suppressing the fire on the interior side of the ignition lines.

Photo taken in September 2003 from the west side of Cerro Grande Peak, looking northwest towards Baca Ranch (Valles Caldera).

Photo was taken in September 2003 from the west side of Cerro Grande Peak, looking northwest towards Baca Ranch (Valles Caldera).

Photo taken in September 2003 from the saddle that borders Baca Ranch (Valles Caldera), looking towards Cerro Grande Peak. The fuels consist of primarily clump grass with light brush.

Photo was taken in September 2003 from the saddle that borders Baca Ranch (Valles Caldera), looking towards Cerro Grande Peak. The fuels consist of primarily clump grass with light brush.

 
Photo taken in September 2003 from top of Cerro Grande Peak looking along the east flank toward Los Alamos. Fuels are primarily clump grass with mixed conifer only on the north edge outside the planned burn unit.

Photo was taken in September 2003 from top of Cerro Grande Peak looking along the east flank toward Los Alamos. Fuels are primarily clump grass with mixed conifer only on the north edge outside the planned burn unit.

The modified blackline operation continues down the east flank and completed about 2200. The Burn Boss walks back to the area of the test fire and discovers that the fire had burned through the blackline and burning southwest into the burn unit faster than anticipated. The decision is made to curtail the fire burning towards the west perimeter (Baca Ranch) by burning out the west flank into the saddle.

At 2300, the ignition crew and holding crew return to the test fire area (via Cerro Grande Peak) to complete this operation, while two additional personnel arrive and are assigned to the east flank. Upon successful completion of this operation, the Burn Boss is becoming concerned about the fatigue levels of his personnel. The hand crew plus six NPS employees hike down to the vehicles to rest. The burn plan calls for the Type II crew to be the holding crew during the night operations and once they are released, the remaining NPS personnel become holding resources for the remainder of the night.

The Burn Boss leaves the burn to return to the Bandelier office to begin requesting additional resources.

Photo taken in September 2003 from east flank of Cerro Grande Peak looking southwest. The fuels consist of light grass and more prevalent mixed conifer on the interior portion of the burn.

Photo was taken in September 2003 from the east flank of Cerro Grande Peak looking southwest. The fuels consist of light grass and more prevalent mixed conifer on the interior portion of the burn.

USGS brass marker on the top of Cerro Grande Peak.

USGS brass marker on the top of Cerro Grande Peak.

 
Photo taken in 2003 from the ridgeline east of Cerro Grande Peak looking towards the location of the slop over. Notice the 'clump grass' and difficulty in walking in this vegetation.

Photo was taken in 2003 from the ridgeline east of Cerro Grande Peak looking towards the location of the slop over. Notice the 'clump grass' and difficulty in walking in this vegetation.

Early on the morning of May 5, additional resources are being ordered through Zone Dispatch. About mid-morning, the Burn Boss is informed that the interior backing fire has burned below the black lining operations. Approximately an hour later, holding personnel on the east flank inform the Holding Boss that they are concerned the fire may "hook" them and they begin black lining operations to stay below the east flank backing fire.

Later that morning, the Burn Boss formally transfers command due to fatigue issues. Shortly thereafter, the east flank holding crew detects a slopover a short distance uphill from their location and mention difficulty holding it. They request a helicopter with a bucket and additional firefighters to assist in their efforts.

At this point, additional resources have been ordered through the dispatch center. An airtanker is also requested for assistance with the slopover. At this point, the Burn Boss decides to convert the prescribed fire to a wildland fire, which then becomes the Cerro Grande Fire. The Burn Boss then assumes responsibility for the fire as the Incident Commander and additional resources are ordered. Efforts then focus on suppressing the wildfire.

Photo taken in 2003 looking from the meadow towards Cerro Grande Peak.

Photo was taken in 2003 looking from the meadow towards Cerro Grande Peak.

Photo taken in 2003 showing the numerous snags that still stand in the meadow as a result of the fire.

Photo was taken in 2003 showing the numerous snags that still stand in the meadow as a result of the fire.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2020-05-12