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What much of the fight against the Cerro Pelado Fire comes down to now, according to Incident Commander Rich Harvey, is “patience.” 

Firefighting personnel — around 1,000 of them — withstood five consecutive days of red flag weather warnings to try to put out the spot fires that have been spreading the Cerro Pelado to the northeast and contain its borders on other sides. On the southern end, Harvey said during a recent community meeting in Cochiti Lake, firefighters were letting the fire burn slowly to the dozer lines that crews had made. 

The impatient method for putting out the southern side of the fire would involve stripping trees and lighting it to burn the area faster, Harvey said. He compared it to holding a burning match upside down as opposed to right side up. 

“We’re always in this constant battle of ‘What’s the right thing to do?’” Harvey said. “A backing fire is very friendly to the natural resources. Backing against the wind keeps the fire really low and cleans up the forest ... The fire is contained with less resource damage if I exercise patience.” 

The northeast corner of the fire has posed bigger problems, where wind gusts blowing from the southwest have pushed it ever closer to Bandelier National Monument.  

Though it spread in recent days across Forest Road 287 and into Alamo Canyon, a May 13 update from the U.S. Forest Service stated the fire has not spread to Frijoles Canyon at this time. 

“We need to stop the eastern spread of the fire,” Harvey said. “Southwest winds make it very difficult for us.”

Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve are both closed until further notice. Superintendent of the Preserve, Jorge Silva-Bañuelos said fire crews are working with representatives from nearby pueblos to determine “values of risk throughout the landscape,” which include sacred cultural sites as well as various wildlife species, structures and homes. 

Los Alamos County remains in “Set” evacuation level. The communities of Cochiti Mesa and the Peralta Canyon area, including Cox Ranch, remain under “Go” evacuation status. Evacuations for Sierra de Los Pinos and Valles Caldera National Preserve remain in “Set” mode, meaning residents should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Jemez Springs, La Cueva and Cochiti Lake area remain in “Ready” status.

The U.S. Forest Service reports that the fire is now 19 percent contained, up from 11 percent on May 12, as crews are now confident about containment efforts at the fire’s northern edge along Highway 4. That highway remains closed. 

Just southwest of that containment line, crews are practicing the same kind of patience that Rich Harvey mentioned to save natural resources from intense fire. 

“It picks up every so often and comes down toward the road,” Great Basin Team One Operation Section Chief Jeff Surber said. “We let it do that on purpose, instead of going to the road and starting everything on fire to run back up toward the fire. We could secure the line quicker by doing that, but we would cause more severe fire that kills more of the groundcover. We like to use low-intensity fire when we’re comfortable with the fact that it will slowly burn its way back down to the holding line.”

Though an investigation is ongoing, according to the Forest Service, officials have not yet determined how the Cerro Pelado fire started. It has been burning largely in the scar of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, meaning the fuel is different than most others. Accordingly, the Cerro Pelado has surprised experts like Fire Behavior Analyst Robert Burnside. 

“It’s a lot different than normally when we deal with fire scars,” Burnside said. “It’s really almost it’s own fuel type.”

Burnside called the Cerro Pelado a “dirty burn,” saying that in normal weather conditions, the downed trees from the Las Conchas would only smolder. The combined low humidity and wind gusts, however, have caused them to burn hot and made the Cerro Pelado difficult to contain or predict. 

“They’re burning very hot, and as they burn that hot they get the brush on fire and it carries,” Burnside said. “We’re seeing it spot anywhere from half a mile to a mile out ahead of itself.” 

Jemez District Ranger Brian Riley echoed the 

“Typically if we get a fire in that burn scar, it doesn’t really go anywhere, particularly this time of year,” Riley said. “Starting in April — and here we are in early May — we continue to have conditions that we’ve never seen before, ever. Even for June.” 

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