New Mexico Burning
June 27, 2011 2:20 PM   Subscribe

The town of Los Alamos, NM (home of LANL and the atomic bomb) is under a mandatory evacuation due to the Las Conchas wildfire.

Dought conditions that are the worst in over 100 years helped to fuel the fire that burned 43.000 acres yesterday afternoon. Firefighters are battling the Pacheco Fire near Santa Fe as well as other fires throughout the state.
posted by jabo (42 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Yikes. We hear about huge, gigantic wildfires spanning hundreds of thousands of square acres in BC and just shrug, knowing that there's still hundreds of thousands of square acres of land between it and Vancouver.

For Los Alamos... not so much. Good luck out there guys.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:23 PM on June 27, 2011

So, um, what would happen if the LANL burns, and how likely is that to happen?
posted by entropicamericana at 2:30 PM on June 27, 2011

For those not in the know – this happened eleven years ago, as well, during the disastrous Cerro Grande fire. I remember looking out at night from the hill above Santa Fe where I was living and seeing the whole horizon lit up bright orange. LANL burned then, but thankfully we appear to have escaped contamination.

Here's hoping things don't get that bad.

Here's a picture of Los Alamos taken a few minutes ago, pulled from my Facebook feed. Yikes.
posted by koeselitz at 2:33 PM on June 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yikes indeed. Big, big yikes.
posted by rtha at 2:37 PM on June 27, 2011

Why not 43,000? I've seen a lot of people doing that (43.000 to state 43,000)...mostly European. Why do that? Doesn't it muddle up the numbers?

Shockingly, different places sometimes have different conventions.
posted by kmz at 2:37 PM on June 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Los Alamos County page for updates
posted by hank at 2:38 PM on June 27, 2011

The Cerro Grande fire burned 48,000 acres in 2 weeks and this fire has burned 43,000 in about 24hrs. It's massive.
posted by backwords at 2:40 PM on June 27, 2011

Holy crap. Been there once. Nice town. Have thought of re-locating.

... BTW, how many square inches in 0.001 acre?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:43 PM on June 27, 2011

My Mom lives just south of Santa Fe and emailed that she could see the fires coming over the Jemez mountains last night. Scary.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:44 PM on June 27, 2011

I was in Espanola when the Cerro Grande fire made its run on Los Alamos and White Rock. I've never seen anything like it. Definitely thinking of my New Mexican friends.
posted by hyperizer at 2:44 PM on June 27, 2011

That NM Fire Info site is really fantastic, and has been keeping a lot of us updated. I highly recommend it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:46 PM on June 27, 2011

So, um, what would happen if the LANL burns, and how likely is that to happen?

Some of the buildings burn down. This happened in the year 2000 from the Cerro Grande fire. While I'm not willing to assert there isn't any large mass of nuclear materials at LANL, for years they've been more working in the computational simulation realm and mostly not in nuclear weapons design. They do some stockpile work, but once again, in simulation. LANL is now much more of a general purpose lab, like Argonne in Illinois.

It will suck -- esp. if it hits the data centers, two of the top 10 supercomputers in the world (Cielo, #6, and Roadrunner, #10) are at LANL, and, of course, there are others -- the June 2011 TOPS 500 shows that #61, #111, #337 and #370 are there as well.

Most of the dirty nuclear work is done at LLNL, not LANL (or LBL/LBNL.) though LLNL is getting out of the Plutonium business.
posted by eriko at 2:48 PM on June 27, 2011

... BTW, how many square inches in 0.001 acre?

Google says 1 acre = 6,272,640 square inches, so....6,272.64 square inches in an acre?
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:50 PM on June 27, 2011

Light snowfall for several winters, no rain for several months, and inattentive users of adjacent open space areas equals wildfire. Our persistent wind this summer makes these fires twice as hard to contain. Scary and sad.
posted by incandissonance at 2:52 PM on June 27, 2011

Thank you for posting this, jabo.

I've been following it since I first woke up to lab-closure news this morning -- I'm supposed to leave on Friday for a two-week stay in northern NM. At least I can cancel (although I am still hoping to go); it's not so easy if you're living there.

My thoughts are with you all -- be safe and healthy, everyone.
posted by Westringia F. at 2:54 PM on June 27, 2011

LANL's webpage says, "A one-acre spot fire was reported in Water Canyon, within Technical Area 49, on the Lab’s southwestern boundary. Reports from the field say the fire has jumped to the north across New Mexico State Route 4." This map shows the Technical Areas at the Lab. Most of the radioactive waste (waiting to be characterized and sent to WIPP) is at TA-54.

I'm not sure people are so nervous about things that the lab is doing now are going to be a problem, it's the legacy waste that they haven't disclosed or cleaned up yet that may pose more of a problem in some people's minds. Though it would also suck to lose super computers.
posted by backwords at 2:55 PM on June 27, 2011

Most of the supercomputers are located in TA-3, in the northwest corner of the map backwords linked to.

I used to work at LANL. The town was pretty boring for a single guy, but the area was utterly beautiful. Even my not-special apartment had a mountain view. I hope everyone gets out OK and the area isn't too devastated.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:11 PM on June 27, 2011

Maps showing the extent of the fire.

What with NM [and AZ] being such a tinderbox, I worry what July 4th revelry may bring....
posted by Westringia F. at 3:18 PM on June 27, 2011

My 'rents are Los Alamos residents. I spoke to them about 1015hrs (their time) this morning, at which time the evac order was still "voluntary". (It has since become mandatory.) Their morale at that point I would describe as "keeping it together, loosely."

I have not talked to them since then, as clogging up the phones at this point would be irresponsible. (The evacuation is to be done in stages, and they are using reverse 911 to alert residents in each area that it's time to leave.)

They had a bit less than a day to pack all they could into the travel trailer. While far from fun, that's better than five minutes, or no warning at all.

Best wishes to them, and to everyone involved. A tip of the hat to those putting themselves in harm's way to protect people, animals and structures.
posted by sourcequench at 3:32 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

hal_c_on: "Why not 43,000? I've seen a lot of people doing that (43.000 to state 43,000)...mostly European. Why do that? Doesn't it muddle up the numbers?"

In Canada, thousands come in periods.
posted by boo_radley at 3:40 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Twitter users (or anyone interested) might want to chck out the #NMFire hashtag for updates; LosAlamosNatLab is also issuing updates both for the labs and for the residents of the town.

I have a few scattered memories of the Cerro Grande Fire. I was 13 at the time; and I remember watching the news and being worried, but what really sticks in my memory was the sunsets the color of tangerines and the smell in the air. My dad, who grew up in Los Angeles and went to college in Walla Walla when Mt. Helens blew, has seen a lot of these weird, apocalyptic sunsets in his life.

We've been getting a lot of smoke here in Albuquerque lately, first from the Arizona wildfires, now we'll be getting some from this one. We're a swamp cooler city, and those draw in smoke and you can smell it in the air inside your house, especially in the evening when it draws a lot in.

I dream about the things I hear, feel and smell when I'm sleeping, and I've been dreaming about wildfires a lot lately.
posted by NoraReed at 3:49 PM on June 27, 2011

Addendum: My dad wrote about childhood nostalgia and the smell of smoke from wildfires a couple weeks ago.
posted by NoraReed at 3:54 PM on June 27, 2011

Two excellent resources for keeping abreast of the wildfire situation are Wildfire Today (a generally focused wildfire blog) and InciWeb (an interagency wildfire information site).

The general consensus among those in the know is that, for various interlocking reasons (including drought conditions and El Niño), this wildfire season is Different. Larger, faster fires, and more of them. It appears that wildfires, like hurricanes and tornadoes, are setting up to throw us some curveballs this year. Climate change probably has a good bit to do with this, but it's not the whole story.

The problem is, in a nutshell, that we have a lot of ponderosa pine forest with big mature (or old-growth) trees surrounded by lots and lots of thinner smaller trees. The argument may have started with the old-growth trees, but it's really about the thin, small trees.

The thin small trees are a pain in the ass. And nobody wants to harvest them, because it costs a lot (upwards of $1,000 an acre) to do. Because this small growth isn't harvested, it provides an avenue for fire to get up into the crown of the old-growth forest, and from there it's a firestorm.

On top of this, we tried for a long time simply to put wildfires out, without really understanding the role they played in the ecosystem. Presto, more undergrowth. More undergrowth, more problems.

Remember the name Wally Covington: he's a a tremendously respected authority on forest management from Northern Arizona University. And if you're looking for a frank assessment of the situation and reasons to be hopeful, he provides both in an interview with the Arizona Republic.
posted by scrump at 3:57 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

FWIW, vorfeed lives in Los Alamos.
posted by dirigibleman at 4:01 PM on June 27, 2011

I used to live there; my heart goes out to those affected. I was living in Abq during the last fire, and it was horrifying to see the homes of friends go up.

The local radio station is live streaming here, at least until they have to go, too.
posted by cybrcamper at 4:07 PM on June 27, 2011

"Why not 43,000? I've seen a lot of people doing that (43.000 to state 43,000)...mostly European. Why do that? Doesn't it muddle up the numbers?"

It was a typo.
posted by jabo at 4:17 PM on June 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some more updates (all my social networking feeds are full up of fire posts):

Dixon Apple Orchard burned early this morning; apparently it's possible some of the trees survived but all of the buildings are gone. Dixon produced basically the best champaign apples ever as well as really good cider; my mom used to go up there sometimes during harvest season and come back with several baskets full of apples. The kitchen would be full of apple-smells the next day as she made enormous quantities of applesauce which would go a series of neatly labeled freezer bags and last us for most of the following year; the quintessential meal of my childhood is porkchops dipped in mom's applesauce.

Everyone seems to be posting stuff about a "no fireworks this year" movement; NM is so dry that people are worried that any firework use this 4th of July is going to set everything on fire (some more). There's a facebook event and everything.

They're closing the road to The Hill tonight at 7:30. [Full disclosure: John Fleck is my dad.]

Hummingbird Music Camp is gonna be fine.

Is Albuquerque on Fire? single serving website

Yes, it's raining in the area of the Los Conchas fire: no, it's not going to be enough to do anything. (Note to people who don't live in New Mexico: Three drops on your windshield count as "it's raining" here.) [Previous disclaimer applies to second link.]
posted by NoraReed at 4:22 PM on June 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hummingbird Music Camp being fine is the best news to come out of this whole thing. I spent 10 glorious summers there, starting at age 8 with a week, ending at age 18 with 6 weeks there (working as a counselor). That place has affected my life more than anywhere else and anything else. So that's good news.

Too bad to hear about the rest of the area. It's been SOOOO dry in NM for the past while... my parents live in Las Cruces, and it's so dry down there that they aren't even counting the oddly unseasonable late October monsoon period from last year as actually being rain. It was horrible and messy and caused flash flooding, but didn't actually contribute enough water to make a dent in the deficit.

I do miss New Mexico a lot and fantasize a lot about moving back there. But with the drought and the job market being the way they are, there's no way I'd be there right now.

*hugs* to everyone in the one of the fifty that is missing!
posted by hippybear at 4:45 PM on June 27, 2011

Update: most of the Dixon orchard is okay, as is the Bandalier visitor center. Lightning just struck near Magdelina, starting another fire. (Magdelina is south of Albuquerque, and really far from Los Alamos: here's a map link.) There's a severe thunderstorm warning in Chaves and Lincoln counties; more lightning can start more fires. Cochiti Pueblo is preparing to evacuate.
posted by NoraReed at 5:38 PM on June 27, 2011

FWIW, vorfeed lives in Los Alamos.

Thanks for thinking of me!

I don't actually live up on the hill anymore, but I do work at a small company in Los Alamos; we moved all our computers and essential equipment out this afternoon, finishing just as the evacuation became mandatory (between 2:30 and 3:00). I'm safe at home in the valley at the moment, with my cats and a pile of computers. The air is pretty bad down here, complete with ashfall (two different friends of mine found chunks of charred wood in their yards, a good fifteen to twenty miles from Los Alamos), but as of now it looks OK. Hopefully the fire will stay clear of Los Alamos, White Rock, and LANL.

The evacuation was very orderly and safe, but it did seem abrupt -- they started ordering people out not more than twenty minutes after a live broadcast in which they'd said evacuations were still voluntary. So it goes with wildfires, I guess. Hats off to the emergency workers for getting the evacuation going smoothly, and here's to everyone involved in fighting the fire!

Here's a picture of Los Alamos taken a few minutes ago, pulled from my Facebook feed. Yikes.

There's some question on twitter (#nmfire/@BWells) as to whether this photo is real, and if so, whether it might have been taken during the Cerro Grande fire in 2000.

There are some great (and definitely real) photos from today and yesterday here. There's also a live webcam from the top of Pajarito Ski Hill. Last night the fire was visible from the cam, but as of right now it's just showing a lot of smoke.
posted by vorfeed at 5:39 PM on June 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Thank you for posting this. I grew up in New Mexico and lived in Albuquerque during the last fire. Maybe it's the distance but this seems much bigger and more terrifying. My best friend's parents (really, more like my second set of parents) are under voluntary evacuation orders outside Santa Fe and I'm terrified for them.

If I were a believer, I'd be praying for rain. Right now I'm holding on to hope.
posted by sugarfish at 7:33 PM on June 27, 2011

The Pajarito webcam seems to be down. I still couldn't see any fire the last time I checked it, so I'm hoping that's not the cause... it'd be awful if fire reaches the ski hill.
posted by vorfeed at 7:39 PM on June 27, 2011

Oldest son BlueHorse works contract for FS driving gasoline trucks to the staging areas to fuel the helicopters and other machinery used. We joke about it, but it still gives me the hee-bee jee-bees thinking about him sitting on thousands of gallons of fuel when I see pictures like the ones linked. He's based out of Santa Fe right now, and says it's pretty hellish.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:20 PM on June 27, 2011

No confirmation-- just a few people on twitter-- but it sounds like Pajarito Ski Area is on fire. Twitter user @eecardell in Santa Fe says it "looks like Mordor" out there.
posted by NoraReed at 8:26 PM on June 27, 2011

Thanks for posting this, I had wanted to post myself but didn't have any links to make a post from. I spent several years growing up in Los Alamos; my dad's side of the family is from there. We're supposed to go out to NM later this week for a family reunion in another part of the state. We were planning to go out a fewdays early to visit my uncle in Los Alamos, so I could show my wife and kids some of the gorgeous places I remember playing and hiking as a kid. Guess we'll have to re-evaluate that plan.
posted by nickmark at 8:34 PM on June 27, 2011

KOAT TV just confirmed that the ski hill is burning. The fire is now just four miles outside of Los Alamos. Not everyone has evacuated -- some people have stayed behind with their homes.
posted by vorfeed at 9:30 PM on June 27, 2011

I'm in Santa Fe. I can't say that I've ever spent this long inside a giant smoke cloud before, but there's a first time for everything. My eyes have been watering all day and I haven't been able to think or concentrate on anything and there is a light dusting of ash on everything. May this soon be lifted from the city.
posted by Electrius at 9:34 PM on June 27, 2011

I know it's a dramatic understatement, but.

This sucks.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:58 PM on June 27, 2011

My house burned in Cerro Grande back in 2000. It was an odd feeling to evacuate the same irreplaceables from the new house that was built to replace the old one that burned 11 years ago.

Hearing that flames had reached the ski hill was unsettling.
posted by hellslinger at 8:10 AM on June 28, 2011

I got an update through relatives. Ski hill and camp May are burning, but the lodge is intact so far. It's working it's way down Los Alamos and Pajarito canyons. That is where they are focusing on stopping it, as well as toward Cochiti.
posted by annsunny at 9:46 AM on June 28, 2011

The Albuquerque Journal has posted a slideshow of photos from the Las Conchas fire, including this amazing long-exposure of flames in the Jemez.
posted by vorfeed at 5:32 PM on June 29, 2011

The Las Conchas fire was the focus of this week's The Big Picture at
posted by vorfeed at 12:34 AM on July 3, 2011

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