Between May 4 and June 10, 2000, a devastating wildfire swept across the Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico and onto the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The Cerro Grande fire burned about 43,000 acres, including 7,500 acres of LANL property. Large areas of vegetation in the Jemez Mountains surrounding LANL were destroyed. The fire left more than 400 Los Alamos residents homeless, destroyed or damaged several hundred structures and disrupted the operation of the entire LANL site. The fire spread over several hundred waste disposal sites and areas contaminated with radioactivity and other hazardous materials.
While it raged, the fire released radioactive and hazardous airborne contaminants from LANL and from burning vegetation and debris. In the fire’s aftermath, the magnitude of its destruction significantly changed environmental conditions and has increased the risks of flash floods, surface and groundwater contamination, and large amounts of LANL contaminants entering the Rio Grande.
The Department of Energy (DOE), LANL, other federal agencies, and the State of New Mexico have taken prompt actions to mitigate risks and have made progress in providing the public with prompt and detailed information pertaining to the risks from the fire aftermath. According to a recent assessment, DOE found that the serious environmental and safety problems associated with flash floods, erosion, and contaminant run-off will persist at LANL for three to five years.