The Department of Energy has put fire back into the toolbox of forest management at Los Alamos National Laboratory, giving a green light to future prescribed burns on lab property.
A DOE official said the laboratory would not be starting any intentional burns in the near term, but the measure would enable work to be conducted by the forest service or park service managers on contiguous property.
“The only fires allowed would be to facilitate our neighbors’ efforts,” said Elizabeth Withers, the environmental compliance officer at the Los Alamos Site Office.
No prescribed burns have been allowed at LANL since the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000.
Withers said the immediate issue has to do with the fact that roadways often do not accurately demarcate property boundaries. Narrow strips of land on the side of the road belong to LANL.
DOE’s permission (and therefore the environmental assessment) is needed for the forest service to burn from their side up to the natural firebreak of the road itself.
Despite the finding, Los Alamos will not be starting prescribed burns on DOE property until another document has been completed, Withers said. That document, LANL’s Wildland Fire Management Plan was mandated by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham as a precautionary safety measure and is anticipated next spring.
Even then, Winters said, it is more likely the National Forest Service and the National Park Service would be relied upon for any fire activities.
“They have staff that routinely deal with fires, and we would have to bring in expert staff, so we would probably be asking our neighbors to assist us,” Winters said. “Why reinvent the wheel?”
The Environmental Assessment for Alternative Wildlife Hazard Reduction and Forest Improvement Programs at LANL, which was finalized a few months after the Cerro Grande Fire concluded that there would be no significant impact under the preferred alternative, which was at that time the “no burn” alternative.
In May 2001, a limited burn alternative described in the assessment was also found to be without significant impact and enabled the use of “air curtain destructors” for eliminating forest waste from the fire and from additional forest thinning activities.
The current Finding of No Significant Impact now brings into play a third alternative covered by the original assessment, the burn alternative, for both waste and treatment.
This includes prescribed burns planned by the forest service in places west of the LANL boundary along NM 501 and piles of waste limbs and brush along NM 4 by the park service.
The prescribed burn might occur in late fall or early winter, depending on moisture conditions.
The final assessment weighed the various alternatives against a number of potential environmental factors, including biological, cultural and visual resources, air and water quality and human health and socioeconomic considerations.
A runaway prescribed burn at neighboring Bandelier National Monument in May 2000 resulted in the evacuation of more than 20,000 people and the wrenching destruction of over 230 private residences in Los Alamos. As the assessment noted, the Cerro Grande Fire blackened 43,000 acres, including some 7,500 acres of lab land.
Along with four other major wildfires in the last 50 years, the Cerro Grande Fire brought home a warning that an even greater catastrophe had been averted.
and inspired a host of coordinated efforts to combat future wildfires.