The Fire Next Time

Las Conchas is over. How do we move forward?

If a tree falls in the woods, is it a catastrophe?

On June 26, it was.

The Las Conchas wildfire—at 156,593 acres, the largest in New Mexico's history—began Sunday, June 26, when an aspen tree fell on a power line. Within just three days, the fire had scorched tens of thousands of acres north and west of Santa Fe, and flames were licking at the edges of Los Alamos National Laboratory [, June 29: "Las Conchas Fire Reaches 69,555 Acres"]. Smoke choked northern New Mexico's air; sacred pueblo lands and canyons that nuclear activists said could be contaminated went up in flames; the entire city of Los Alamos was ordered to evacuate [news, July 6: "Under Fire"].

It took thousands of fire fighters more than a month to suppress the blaze, and the damage didn't end there. Subsequent rains brought catastrophic flooding and mudslides to burned areas; on Nov. 23, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared Santa Clara Pueblo and other parts of New Mexico disaster areas.

Las Conchas set all sorts of doomsday records, but it also illustrated New Mexico's resilience: Using smartphones and social networks, residents in danger zones helped each other stay informed, coordinating evacuations and reporting on the fire's advancing borders. The Los Alamos Historical Museum's current exhibit features not only professional photography, but also amateur shots of the advancing wildfire.

The photos, LAHM Executive Director Heather McClenahan explains, reflect the community's response to Las Conchas—one that contrasts the disastrous impact of the 2000 Cerro Grande fire.

"Cerro Grande was incredibly painful because there was so much loss in the community," McClenahan says. "And this wasn't ho-hum; it was, 'We've got to buckle down and get used to living with this stuff'—and I think this comes across in the photos, too, and in the exhibit as a whole, people just saying… 'We're all in it together.'"

While residents rebuild, state and federal officials are already gearing up for next year.

"If you look at it from the standpoint of prevention, all of us—state, local, federal—we're getting an earlier start on it this year and brainstorming new ideas that will attract people's attention," New Mexico State Forestry Fire Prevention and Outreach Program Manager Dan Ware tells SFR. "Our focus this coming year is going to be not just the overall 'Be careful'-type messages, but also really focusing in on some of the specific causes from last year's fires."

With Las Conchas, Ware says, that's tricky.

"Las Conchas was technically human-caused because there was a human element, but at same time, it wasn't like somebody intentionally set it or walked away from a campfire," Ware says. That makes it harder to prevent, he says, until people realize they can create "defensible space," or fire-resistant areas, around their property and participate in preventive programs such as Firewise.

"It's a double-edged sword, and it's like this with any kind of tragedy: If it's a little kid who's riding his bike and falls down and dies because he wasn't wearing a helmet, you're going to see a big push for kids to wear helmets," Ware says. "It's sad that it takes a tragedy like that."

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