Cerro Pelado fire a grim reprise, tearing through the Las Conchas burn scar

Santo Domingo Pueblo official expresses frustration at ongoing lack of tribal consultation by federal agencies

By: - May 4, 2022 4:20 am

Smoke from more than 22,000 acres of evergreens and underbrush burning in the Jemez was carried steadily westward by winds all day Monday, May 2, though by nightfall it started settling in nearby Pojoaque and Tesuque Pueblo valleys, as well as low-lying parts of Santa Fe. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

Smoke cast an eerie, sepia-toned filter over Los Alamos, N.M., late Monday afternoon as a community meeting was called to order at the county headquarters. Officials from multiple agencies convened to update the public about the fight against the Cerro Pelado fire in the Jemez Mountains. More than 22,000 acres have already burned since April 22, with only 10% containment and a fire line only about six miles away from one perimeter of the national laboratory.

For many of the locals assembled, encroaching flames were a grim reprise. It took just two days back in 2011 for the devastating Las Conchas fire to engulf more than 150,000 acres of the forest surrounding Los Alamos, leveling homes and farms, protected sites and watersheds, and creating conditions for dangerous flooding in the burn scar.

Scott Stearns, a National Weather Service meteorologist working in consultation with firefighters, warned the assembly that weather conditions will likely remain critical throughout Tuesday. While next week’s forecast includes a faint chance of precipitation, the best hopes for firefighters beating back flames in the meantime are less wind and more relative humidity, both of which could improve some starting Wednesday.

Take to heart that this is going to be here for a while.

– Jorge Silva-Bañuelos

The superintendent of Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jorge Silva-Bañuelos, who is also the agency administrator for Bandelier National Monument, pointed out that while the Las Conchas fire seemed like an exceptional disaster at the time, it was just a year later that an even bigger fire raged through 300,000 acres of the Gila Wilderness. 

Perhaps even more stunning now, said Silva-Bañuelos, is that the Jemez fire is burning through much of the forest charred just a decade ago. He speculated that Cerro Pelado could set a precedent for other parts of the U.S. prone to wildfire. 

The Cerro Pelado fire’s eastern section is moving through the footprint left by the 2011 Las Conchas fire. As of Monday, a total of three homes had been lost. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. (Photo by Margaret Wright for Source NM)

“Frankly, I was surprised to see how active this fire behavior has been in this old burn scar. Usually these burn scars tend to reduce fire behavior, and the fire just kind of pumps along. This fire is tracking very closely to where the Las Conchas burn scar has been, and that’s very challenging.” 

Responders are learning on the fly how to manage and defend against new flames in an area already transformed by more recent burns, Silva-Bañuelos said. It’s dangerous to deploy wildland firefighters in areas full of “snags,” such as previously fire-damaged trees prone to falling. 

“Take to heart that this is going to be here for a while,” he said, adding that he’ll be monitoring closely as the fire nears the upper watershed of Frijoles Canyon where Bandelier National Monument is nestled.

Los Alamos Fire Department Chief Troy Hughes encouraged locals to create their own safety checklists and preparation plans accordingly, using resources created by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He also urged residents to sign up for the county’s “Code Red” emergency management system for immediate alerts in the event of an evacuation order. 

Facebook comment sections are not reliable sources of information, Hughes added — an assertion echoed by LANL Wildland Program Manager Richard Nieto, who said a false rumor that fire had jumped onto the north side of State Highway 4 had been circulating all day.

The view from NM Highway 4 (Public domain photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

One of their primary concerns Monday was protecting an area where a unique stand of old-growth trees was in danger of igniting, said Peter Myers, an operation section chief for the Southern Area Incident Management Team deployed to coordinate the firefighting response. And while the Cerro Pelado Fire was fast approaching Cochiti tribal lands, he said that terrain is rockier with less vegetation, which might at least slow the fire’s encroachment.

Some nearby residents, like those who live near Cochiti Mesa and Peralta Canyon, have not been so lucky. An evacuation order was issued several nights ago after the fire burst out of the canyon toward some dwellings. Meyers said crews attempted Monday morning to assess and further safeguard at-risk structures, but firefighters had to back out when the wind kicked up, concentrating their efforts instead along State Highway 4 and a service road just east of the fireline. 

Christopher Chavez, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Pueblo of Santo Domingo, stood during the Q&A session to say he’d been in contact with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to say that outside agencies, especially at the federal level, are still failing to consult and collaborate with tribes. 

Native communities adapted to life in these same forests over the course of generations, Chavez said. “Why can’t we have the animals back to feed on the vegetation? Why can’t we collect firewood and cut down trees for use in our pueblos? We can’t even get in there without permission. We have to sneak in at night to say prayers.”

Tribal members are watching the fire’s trajectory — and they’re hurting, Chavez said. First they lost access to ancestral territory and sacred spaces. Now they’re seeing that same inheritance succumb to fires that may have been prevented.

Virtual Cerro Pelado meeting:

Tuesday, May 3, from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. — Facebook

For updated information about the Cerro Pelado Fire:

Air quality and smoke conditions:

Visit fire.airnow.gov for an interactive map that shows fire and smoke conditions. Air quality monitors are updated hourly. One is set to be installed Tuesday near Española, with another slated for installation in Los Alamos on Wednesday.

CORRECTION

This article was updated on Tuesday, May 3, at 7 p.m. to correctly reflect the start date of the Cerro Pelado fire. We apologize for the error. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Margaret Wright
Margaret Wright

Margaret Wright is a freelance journalist whose previous work has appeared at the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Political Report, Santa Fe Reporter, KUNM News and Popula, among other local outlets now shuttered. Homesickness besets her if she’s outside of the high desert for too long.

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