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Photos of the Las Conchas Fire Approaching My Office

June 29, 2011 at 1:44 am

I've spent the past couple of hours trying to get up to date on latest developments with the Las Conchas fire, which has caused the evacuation of Los Alamos (the town) and the shutdown of Los Alamos (the lab).  Tonight I found a few particularly eye-opening photos on the website for KOB TV.  (The photos were uploaded to their website by generous amateur photographers, without attribution.  So the photos weren't taken by me.  I couldn't have taken them if I wanted to: I've been ordered to stay home, and the road is closed anyway.  I'd attribute them properly if I knew whom to credit.)

Anyway, if you take a look at these photos, you get a poor-man's time lapse of the fire approaching LANL.  More specifically, you can watch the fire approaching the building where I work.

First, a wide shot from far away.  This shows some of the landscape.  It appears to have been taken from the east or northeast, looking toward the heart of the lab.  (The fire is approaching LANL from the southeast.)  If you look in the lower right corner, there is a rectangular green building just below the leftmost firelight.  That's where I work. 

(Incidentally, I don't know the times when these photos were taken.  So I'm making a guess as to the sequence here.)

Next, here's a photo from a little closer in.  I work in that round green building smack-dab in the center of the photo.  My guess, based on the foreground buildings and the orientation of things here, is that this was taken from town, across Los Alamos (?) canyon.  (I can't keep the canyon names straight.  There are a lot of them.)

Okay, now a much closer shot, both in terms of zoom and the position of the fire.  If you compare this photo with the one above, and pay attention to the contours of the landscape behind my building, you can see that the firelight is one ridge closer than before.  Yikes!

The stair-stepped green building is where I work.  If you knew where to look, you could see my office window.

And a final shot, closer still:

The beige building to the right of mine houses the cafeteria, where I enjoy delicious green chile chicken enchiladas.  In this and the previous photo, if you know where to look, you an also see the parking ramp that I use on the rare days I drive to work rather than taking the bus.

Wow.  Surreal and horrifying.  I really hope everybody is okay.


Steve Halter June 29, 2011 at 10:22 am
That looks pretty bad. About how far away is that ridge from the lab? Is there a buffer zone around the lab area to prevent wildfire incursions? I had somehow always pictured Los Alamos Labs as a bleak desolate place situated among desert mesas. It looks much greener and tree-ier.
Ian June 29, 2011 at 10:33 am
I'm really bad at judging distances, so I can't tell. The photographs do make it look like the flames are immediately behind the building, but there's actually more lab property behind the green building. There are buffer zones in a lot of areas, from what I understand (especially after the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, when the Lab became much more proactive about clearing brush, etc.) But the problem is that the lab's property covers about 43 square miles, much of that riddled with canyons and ravines and thickly forested areas. I had somehow always pictured Los Alamos Labs as a bleak desolate place situated among desert mesas. It looks much greener and tree-ier. When I first visited Los Alamos, as a tourist in 1994, it was extremely green and lush and really very lovely. The mountains -- back when they used to be covered in Ponderosa pine forest -- were just breathtaking. I moved to LA a few years after Cerro Grande, which left many but not all the mountains bordering the town brown and bare and denuded of trees. I think this fire will finish of the mountains that didn't get scorched last time around. In other words, it used to be very green and very tree-y. Not anymore.
Scott Denning June 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm
The terrain in and around Los Alamos is just about the worst for firefighting. They can be working a hotspot on one mesa top, but wind can carry the fire to any one of several other mesas nearby. And once that happens, shifting resources is not simple because of the canyons between. I recall hearing tales from the Cerro Grande fire of firefighters seeing houses igniting across a ravine and feeling helpless because they knew there was no way they could get over there in time. Too, the winds through the canyons can change suddenly, or the vegetation in the canyons can catch and that canyon becomes a "chute" that directs the fire. So it is hard to predict where you will have to address the front next -- since they cannot have crews everywhere they have to respond as quickly as possible to new breakouts, over difficult terrain. It's a tinderbox out there. I did a controlled burn Monday along a fenceline where two runs of wire catch leaves and such and there is always tall grass that cannot be mown. I burn there every season, as part of a firebreak around the house in anticipation of July 4th excesses, so I know what to expect and had tools and a charged water hose on hand. But one match into the tinder and within three seconds I had a fireline 16 feet wide. Manageable, but still a sobering reminder of what those guys on the lines up north have to deal with. And though it was calm when I started my "controlled burn", the wind gusted up for a minute right in the middle. All this to the backdrop of a haze of smoke from the northern fire(s), and firecrackers being set off up the road. I'm considering answering each firework I hear with a bullet (he said with a "I'm-joking-no-really" sardonic rictus on his face). We got a spattering of rain yesterday. I thanked it, very sincerely, with the atavistic awe that Southwesterners feel at seeing water fall from the sky. Then very politely asked it to travel north for the nonce. Here's hoping for the safety of the guys on the line, and minimal damage to people's homes and livelihoods.
Melinda June 29, 2011 at 5:13 pm
This is so horrible and heartbreaking. Northern NM used to be so beautiful with Ponderosa pines and scrub oak and native grasses. Now it's a tinderbox and ash where it's burned. Rain is something that folks outside of the Southwest can't appreciate in the way we do. The average rainfall in Albuquerque is 7 inches a year. It's supposed to be 14 inches in Santa Fe, but it hasn't rained or snowed here since January. My part-time neighbors who are from New York said they went outside when a few drops fell on Monday and stood in the rain. I told them them had become true New Mexicans. That's what we do.
Tengland June 29, 2011 at 7:28 pm
Is the cafeteria in or near the Otowi Building? And it is across a parking lot from the Oppenheimer Library? Those are the buildings I know from my days as a Monitor reporter. I ate at the cafeteria a couple of times. Pretty good fro cafeteria food, better than most town restaurants at the time. I don't recognize the building your office is in; must've been built after I left SF. I understand the Administration Building is either going to be torn down or has already. Man, the place keeps changing. Showing my age here: I remember when the lab core was downtown and two buildings were connected by a walkway over Trinity Drive. The buildings then were wood frame covered in clapboard, Army style, and it a fire like this cam, the place would ignite in a flash. One assumes the fire would have a rough time in the central lab complex because of buildings, walls, roads and parking lots. A big danger could be from burning cinders and such falling and igniting on roofs and whatnot. Plus the intense heat perhaps igniting dry brush outside windows or something. Re Melinda: Northern NM always has been exposed to extremes. The bark beetle infestation of a few years ago cleared out huge stands of pinon, unfortunate because pinion takes so long to grow back. And if you look at photos of the Santa Fe area from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the hills around the city are denuded, the trees having gone into people's fireplaces. Take in the beauty of the place when you can 'cause you never know when it's going to change.
Ian June 30, 2011 at 11:32 am
Yep, the cafeteria is in Otowi. You can pick out the Otowi building in some of those photos. The Oppenheimer library is still there, too, although there's no longer a road/roundabout that circles past Otowi and the library. The building in which I work, the NSSB, was finished in 2006. That's when we moved in. It replaced the old administration building (where my office used to be prior to 2006). They just finished the demolition on the old Ad building, as in a few weeks ago. The Ad building site is now completely flat and featureless with the exception of the trees they managed to work around.
Mark Lopez June 30, 2011 at 5:53 pm
I have not been following the fire news like I should have. I didn't realize just how bad it is. These photos are truly frightening! How much danger is the town in? This makes me thankful that it rains just about every week here in New Jersey. Hope you guys get some relief very soon.
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