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Editorial: LANL’s lack of wildfire plan, action irresponsible

One would think an entity with 13 nuclear facilities that experienced two catastrophic wildfires in recent years would be taking fire prevention seriously.

After all, the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire burned about 7,500 acres of Los Alamos National Laboratory property, resulting in $331 million in damages. And that figure doesn’t include an estimated $15 million in lost productivity per week during a 15-day shutdown and recovery period.

And then there was the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. While it ultimately burned only about 1 acre of LANL land, it forced roughly 10,000 LANL employees out of their offices and out of Los Alamos for more than a week.

But according to a recent report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, managers at LANL have not fully implemented measures designed to reduce the impact from wildland fires, including tree thinning in buffer zones below overhead power lines.

The report is so disappointing because the Las Conchas Fire, which burned about 156,293 total acres, started when a tree fell on a power line in the Santa Fe National Forest, resulting in a fast-burning “crown fire” that burned through tree canopy. The report says inspectors found there were 400 to 500 trees per acre in Los Alamos Canyon, although there should be only 40 to 50 trees in an acre.

The report says some wildland fire plans were never drafted and some policies were not followed. For example, some fire roads were not maintained to ensure firefighters and equipment could get through, and although lab managers were required to develop a “comprehensive risk-based approach to wildland fire management,” the report says the inspector general wasn’t provided any evidence that emergency preparedness activities were being followed.

LANL is a $14.2 billion national asset. It needs to be protected as such. The report also takes the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Field Office to task for failing to provide proper oversight. LANL said in response to the report it has already begun thinning of vegetation along access routes, making improvements to fire access roads and the recent removal of thousands of downed trees.

It’s good to see lab managers are finally on it, but progress should be measured by an independent agency – and before another catastrophic blaze. We hope when we look back in a year, significant progress will guard LANL from wildfires.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.