The Fire This Time


On May 4, 2000 a controlled burn on Cerro Grande Mountain, deep in the Bandelier National Monument, escaped control of the US Forest Service. The flames would rage across New Mexico’s highlands for over one month until contained. It would take another month to fully extinguish. Hundreds of homes were burned to cinders, most in the city of Los Alamos, and final damage estimates were in the $1 billion range.

The Cerro Grande fire was an expansive conflagration by any standard, but what set it apart from other super-fires of the last decade was that it burned through a highly secretive government facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

LANL is not just any government lab. LANL is the epicenter of the US nuclear weapons program. It is the home base of the weaponeers, the thousands of Department of Energy employees and subcontractors who have tethered their careers, livelihoods, and identities to the atom bomb’s continuing role in American foreign, and domestic policy. In this respect LANL is the brain trust (or moral pit, if you prefer) of US nuclearism. LANL is also now the center of US plutonium manufacturing for nuclear weapons; the Lab is host to billion dollar factories dedicated to storing, milling (one could even say supplicating to) this most deadly material. Expansions are underway.

More generally, LANL is one of the most secretive and militaristic institutions in America. Many New Mexicans complain about the Lab as a colonizing force. Communities in its most immediate sphere of influence, the Espanola Valley, suffer from the exorbitant political influence it wields over the entire state’s affairs, and the negative economic impact it bestows. The problems are deeply cultural and psychological even; the poor towns and counties downwind and downstream of LANL are among the poorest in the nation, with the highest rates of heroin and methamphetamine addiction, suffering epidemic violence, and disturbing instances of suicide, especially among the young. Living in the shadow of the lab (on clear days it’s easy to spot LANL’s buildings, and even one of its massive nuclear waste dumps from downtown Santa Fe), New Mexicans have long feared catastrophe.

So when the Cerro Grande fire, incinerating pine and juniper trees like match sticks, crossed onto LANL property eleven years ago and torched over 100 lab buildings, many assumed the worst. The disastrous potential then was enormous. Spread across 43 square miles, LANL is made up of dozens of “technical areas.” Many of these technical areas were the sites of toxic and radioactive experimentation throughout the Cold War, and deadly materials are scattered about the lab’s soil, concentrated in the canyons by runoff, and bioaccumulated in some vegetation.

When news broke that Cerro Grande was torching Lab property, burning buildings to the ground, downwind communities such as San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Peublos, and Santa Fe panicked, assuming that radioactive and toxic fallout were headed toward them in volatile clouds of ash and smoke. Worse still was the fear that one of LANL’s nuclear waste dumps, such as Area G, might be blazing, lifting huge concentrations of radioactivity in the atmosphere.

At the time my organization (which I did not yet serve on the board of), the Los Alamos Study Group, chartered a plane and made several flights over the Lab and fire areas. Like the rest of the community, the news media, and even the Department of Energy itself, we were being kept in the dark about what was going on at the Lab. The Lab’s hierarchy, then a management team of men appointed by the University of California’s Board of Regents, kept as much of the disaster a secret as possible. It was impossible to know if the worst was occurring.

New Mexico and the nation escaped the worst then. The fire certainly did have numerous ecological and health consequences for New Mexico, but the fears of mass radioactive contamination have since proven unfounded according to many scientific studies. Of course some locals vehemently counter these same studies with tales of cancers and birth defects among their family, and their farm animals, and note that the researchers who have “proven” no significant exposure from the fire event were on the payroll of the lab. True enough, and we will never really know all of what happened, and what costs we bear from it. Such is the nature of the technoscientific age of “progress” and poison we are steeped in.

In the end though, Cerro Grande, for all its feel of catastrophism, proved a bullet mostly dodged. The Lab vowed in Boy Scout fashion to be prepared and built a $21 million Emergency Operations Center out of which to coordinate future responses to fires and, after 9-11, other kinds of “unforseen” events.

Yet here we are again, in 2011 with a raging wildfire, this one already 50% larger than Cerro Grande, still growing, and moving faster, according to veteran firefighters. It’s being called the Las Conchas fire. It too temporarily breached LANL property, although having not yet burned any Lab buildings, and has caused the company town of Los Alamos, where many of the Lab’s weaponeers live, to evacuate.

It would be a mistake, however, to again fixate on the most immediate images of catastrophe this blaze conjures. The fears are so great, especially in the wake of the tsunami that has caused meltdowns at several of Japan’s nuclear reactors, and the predictable and deplorable actions of that government and the giant Tokyo Electric Power Company in keeping the extensiveness of that radiological disaster secret. Even so, the likelihood that Las Conchas will rupture nuclear waste drums stored at Area G, or send up deadly plumes of legacy radioactive wastes from contaminated soils and plants is slim.

All this is not to say that Las Conchas isn’t a disaster, or that severe dangers don’t lurk in the flames. In fact it’s much worse than any of this fixation on possible radioactive contamination implies. The Las Conchas fire is a major disaster tucked into a larger and unfolding world-shattering catastrophe. It is among a cohort of wildfires that may be phasing in a new ecology in the American West, one without forests. The scientific literature is overflowing with studies of the current impacts of rising average temperatures and reduced precipitation on forests lands. Future models forecasting the effects of such trends have been run countless times with different data sets. While there are a range of findings, the majority point toward greatly increased stresses upon western North American forests due to climate change. There are even detailed studies, nearly all of them, indicating that climatic changes will increase the number and severity of fire events beyond the parameters reconstructed through paleodendrological evidence. Wildfires are likely be the punctual culmination of various stresses, in one quick moment transforming forests into deserts where trees may never again grow in any great numbers.

As Chip Ward has written about the recent Wallow Fire in Arizona:

“These past few years, mega-fires in the West have become ever more routine. Though their estimates and measurements may vary, the experts who study these phenomena all agree that wildfires today are bigger, last longer and are more frequent. A big fire used to burn perhaps 30 square miles. Today, wildfires regularly scorch 150-square-mile areas. Global warming, global weirding, climate change–whatever you prefer to call it–is not just happening in some distant, melting Arctic land out of a storybook. It is not just burning up far-away Russia. It’s here now. The seas have warmed, ice caps are melting and the old reliable ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams are jumping their tracks.”

It is such a terrible irony that the fire that symbolizes the future of western North America blazes on the edge of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In recent years, especially under Obama, LANL has seen its budget grow quickly, fueling a construction boom of nuclear weapons capital projects. Billions of dollars worth of construction is taking place within a lab site known as the “Pajarito Corridor“. The biggest project, around which all else revolves, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project (CMRR), a boorishly descriptive yet also magniloquent name for a nuclear weapons factory that is designed to boost the lab’s manufacturing capacity for bomb pits, the small spheres of plutonium metal that make a nuclear weapon go boom.

Last year there was some news of the Obama administration’s pact with Senate Republicans to spend upwards of $180 billion on new nuclear weapons infrastructure far into the future. LANL’s capital projects are the costliest single component of this larger portfolio of American nuclear militarism. The CMRR itself will cost over $6 billion when all is said and done. Alone the CMRR is the biggest construction project in New Mexico’s history excepting perhaps the highways system. All together the construction boom at LANL might rival even that.

New Mexico is burning. The southwest is burning. It’s not just the Las Conchas fire. There have reportedly been 1000 fires around the state in the last year. There are upwards of 40 major fires burning across New Mexico right now. Las Conchas probably just became the biggest fire in New Mexico’s history.

While building nuclear weapons might not quite be fiddling, you get the idea. While America burns, its leaders are busy pouring scarce money and manpower into nuclear weapons. The fire in New Mexico is both symbolic and literal in this sense.

Earlier this year New Mexico’s senior Senator Jeff Bingaman proudly announced to his constituents how the federal budget his party crafted would boost public lands, and environmental projects in the state. For public lands? $28 million in projects including, $8.8 million to replace the old and unsafe lighting and electrical system in Carlsbad Caverns National Park; $3.5 million for operations at the Valles Caldera National Preserve (which is now burning in the Las Conchas fire), and; $3.4 million to purchase the 5,000-acre Miranda Canyon property adjacent to the Carson National Forest in Taos County.

Bravo Jeff.

LANL’s budget for 2011 exceeds $2 billion. They’re building a fence around LANL’s plutonium factory that alone will cost hundreds of millions. While the feds spend chump change to make pretend investments in our dying public lands, replacing light bulbs at Carlsbad Caverns and such, they’re pumping billions into a bomb factory in the high desert.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: [email protected]