Cerro Grande Fire Settlement

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agreed to a $115 million settlement over the Cerro Grande Fire. 

Cerro Grande Fire burns tree and street sign
Photo Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory

In May of 2000, a National Park Service Crew lit a prescribed burn (the controlled application of a fire by a team of fire experts) that destroyed over 400 structures in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The intention behind the burn was to clear out tree-filled grasslands that raised a potential risk for a major wildfire. The burn was part of the 10-year Bandelier National Monument plan for reducing fire hazard within the monument.

Due to the windy springtime conditions and low levels of humidity of the Jemez Mountains, the fire quickly escalated and became uncontrollable as it raged through the town of Los Alamos. The Cerro Grande fire was started on May 4th, and by the 10th, the residents of Los Alamos had to be evacuated. Firefighters fought the relentless flames for 48 hours straight, battling 50 mph wind gusts. It wasn’t until July 20th of that year that the Cerro Grande Fire was finally considered extinguished.

The Cerro Grande Fire Consumed 200 Homes and 43,000 Acres

Although there were no casualties, the merciless flames burned over 200 homes and displaced around 400 residents. According to The United States General Accounting Office (GAO) at the time of the disaster, the fire traveled over 43,000 acres. The aftermath of this catastrophe included a lingering, toxic stench of scorched structures, a dark, ominous sky filled with plumes of smoke, and the intense feeling of loss among Los Alamos residents.

The fire spread over areas contaminated with radioactivity along with other hazardous materials, resulting in the release of radioactive and hazardous airborne contaminants into the air. The environmental conditions of Los Alamos were significantly altered by these toxins. For example, there was an increase in the risks of flash floods in addition to surface and groundwater contamination.

In a report by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Nuclear Policy Project in 2000, Robert Alvarez and Joni Arends projected in a report that the safety problems associated with flash floods, erosion, and contaminant run-off would persist for three to five years following the fire. In addition, the extreme amounts of smoke containing hazardous matter posed health risks to residents who might have been exposed to the heavy smoke. The elderly, the young, and people with respiratory diseases were at a particularly heightened health risk.

CGFAA – Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act

In response to these dangers, FEMA established an office which served to fully compensate the victims for their losses, including cash aid in addition to typical disaster relief. The Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act (CGFAA) requires FEMA to evaluate, process, and pay claims, injuries, and property damage resulting from the fire. FEMA was the only association involved with the settlement of the fire.

Due to privacy issues, FEMA was unable to disclose which specific businesses, homeowners, and tribes had been paid. According to The Missoulian, director of FEMA’s Santa Fe office Kathy Keith reported that it is “impossible” to determine an accurate average claim that victims received for property damage, as many have filed multiple claims. Although the specifics are not known, it was reported that the $115 million settlement was given to roughly 15,000 victims of the fire. Additionally, there was $28 million given to businesses, $29 million to tribal governments, $25 million to community mitigation, and $2 million to individual mitigation.

Officials at GAO have come up with important takeaways from the Cerro Grande Fire, most notably stating that burn plans should always be peer reviewed by “technically competent reviewers outside of the agency.” More investigation into the burn plan was conducted after the catastrophic fire, revealing that the superintendent responsible for approving the plan was not “technically competent” to analyze the plans contents.

Forest Management Tactics Following Cerro Grande

In addition, the Cerro Grande Fire made federal agencies weary about conducting prescribed burns for some time following the disaster. However, in the decade following the burn, officials have implemented tamer forest management tactics, including tree thinning and lower-scale controlled burns. Victims, firefighters, and government officials agree that though fires are normal occurrences, their power should not be underestimated and they should be handled with extreme caution and respect.

Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory – no changes made to original image; License