By Kyle Dickman
MOST PEOPLE, I’ll rubberneck at a house fire if I happen to be passing
by. Wildfires, though, can pull me in from the next county. I spent five
years during my late teens and early twenties cutting firebreaks with a
hotshot and engine crew for the U.S. Forest Service, and the smell of
burning pine can make me wish I was back on the line.
When northern New Mexico’s Las Conchas fire erupted on Sunday, June 26, the gigantic plume of smoke billowing off the Jemez Mountains looked terrifying and ugly, like motor oil smeared across the sky. After sunset I drove to a lookout spot near my home in Santa Fe, where Outside is based, and watched a wall of flames six miles wide roaring down the southern and eastern flanks of the Jemez range, 20 miles west of where I stood. I had to go see it for myself.
The Forest Service is generally leery about letting journalists tag along with firefighters. Unlike the military, which regularly embeds reporters with front-line troops, it doesn’t see any upside to having untrained onlookers hanging around in a war zone. But Michael Thompson, an assistant chief for the Los Alamos County Fire Department, agreed by telephone to let me join him for a patrol of the firelines on Monday afternoon. “Get to Los Alamos before they block the city off,” he told me. “The town’s evacuating.”
In less than 20 hours, the Las Conchas fire—which started roughly 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos—had consumed nearly 50,000 acres and closed much of the gap between its point of origin and the town, an incredibly rapid march. Midday Monday, the fire was already threatening to enter this small but well-known community of 12,000 people, most of whom are among the 15,000 nuclear scientists and support staff who work at the adjoining Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). By 3 p.m., I was speeding west with Outside senior editor Grayson Schaffer. A steady stream of cars were coming from the other direction, fleeing the tightly controlled hilltop citadel. Over our heads, a mushrooming column of smoke reached into the stratosphere.