The Cerro Grande Fire: The Half-Life of Wildlife

The men and women of Los Alamos National Laboratories, located in the Jemez Mountains surrounding Santa Fe, New Mexico, spent several decades producing plutonium nuclear triggers for bombs. The plutonium-rich run-off was dumped into the woods surrounding the Labs. When the realization finally dawned that this needed to stop, mitigation was begun to strip away as much of the infected soil as possible. Despite this attempt the soil on the Jemez Mountain hillsides surrounding the Lab remained hot. Hot, but stable.

Until May 5, 2000.

On that date, a “prescribed burn” lit by the Forest Service specifically to remove undergrowth and reduce fire risk, escaped control and proceeded to race through the woods. 1,000 firefighters worked three weeks to establish a 100% containment line. It took several more weeks to knock out the remaining fire. By then what had come to be known as the Cerro Grande Fire had burned 45,000 acres, destroyed 235 homes and displaced 18,000 people, the entire population of the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock. 1,600 people would wind up making FEMA claims for lost property for a total of $419 million in federal payments. Total damages were estimated at $1 billion.

What used to anchor the plutonium to the hillside, the root-bound soil of an overgrown forest – a forest with 2,000 ponderosa pine per acre as opposed to the average 80 – was removed by the fire. Radiation from nuclear tests, according to scientists, have also been concentrated in the trees that had grown up since the tests.

The fire, which may have reached 2,800 degrees, mineralized the soil – it burnt off all organic material, rendering it sterile not for a season, but possibly for as long as a decade. Basically, this type of fire, fueled with neglected underbrush, has an effect on animal life that “normal” fires do not. It results in the long-term deprivation of once-rich habitat, a habitat that used to possess animals in abundance at every level from large carnivore to rodent to fish to bird. Another effect on the wildlife of the area is possible plutonium poisoning. With the vegetation burnt off, the next rainstorm sluiced the plutonium-rich soil into the Rio Grande River.

The Rio Grande, is a 1,760 mile river that drains a 336,000-square mile watershed from Colorado to Mexico. 2,000,000 acres of farmland are irrigated by the Rio Grande and it is an integral element in the wildlife of three American and four Mexican states. 10,000,000 people rely on the Rio Grande for drinking water, irrigation and recreation. Although the health effects of plutonium are ill-understood, it is certain that plant, animal and human life over the entire Southwest is destined to be effected for decades to come.

The effects of the plutonium on the inter-related ecosystem are hard to gauge. What was certain is that the mineralized sediments would reach the Rio Grande with the next rain. The radioactivity would settle into the sediment, to be carried upward from fish and other riverine life to large downstream animals such as bears, coyotes and even cattle, not to mention humans.

Before the fire had even stopped burning Los Alamos National Laboratory released a press release announcing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the New Mexico Environment Department had tested the air around the fire and found that it contained no significantly raised level of radiation.

Scientists unaffiliated with the government criticized the study’s conclusions. The Albuquerque Tribune quoted Dr. Dan Kerlinsky of New Mexico Physicians for Social Responsibility as calling the report “terrible science.” The paper pointed out that the report contained no data and no specific numbers. Another group, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, described both the data the methods for gathering it as incomplete and misleading.

Four years after the fire, there is no “hook” left to the story and so, no news outlet is still following it. This despite the fact that fish, fowl, livestock, water, crops and people may be, even now, communicating over 50 years of spent plutonium to one another all along the Rio Grande watershed and beyond.

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