Northern N.M. Communities Remember Cerro Grande Fire 5 Years Later

May 5, 2005

On May 4, 2000, a prescribed fire began on federal land at the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.

The fire grew beyond expected containment areas and within days, required the evacuation of 18,000 residents of Los Alamos, destroyed more than 400 homes and burned 47,650 acres. The Cerro Grande Fire remains the most costly federal fire disaster, with more nearly $570 million in disaster expenses and claims paid to individuals, businesses, communities and tribes. Residents of northern New Mexico understand wildfire risks and rebuilt with fire safety in mind.

“Hundreds of firefighters fought bravely to contain and extinguish the Cerro Grande fire five years ago,” said FEMA Acting Regional Director Gary Jones. “We saw similar cooperation as families, businesses and local leaders rebuilt with fire safety, environmental protection and community interests in mind.”

As the fire grew, the President declared an emergency on May 10 and a major disaster on May 13, 2000. Federal and state disaster teams established temporary housing, disaster recovery centers and crisis counseling programs. Infrastructure teams assessed and began repairs to roads, bridges, utilities and other facilities.

With monsoon rains forecast about the time the fire was extinguished, an interagency burned area rehabilitation team implemented measures to minimize secondary damages such as flooding and to promote healthy forest re-growth. FEMA developed fire and flood recovery maps to guide emergency efforts and long-term reconstruction. In all, FEMA provided $23.5 million in disaster assistance.

In July 2000, the Congress passed and the President signed into law the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act. The law’s stated purpose was to compensate survivors of the Cerro Grande Fire for injuries resulting from the fire. The Office of Cerro Grande Fire Claims established locations in Los Alamos and Santa Fe to administer the claims program.

The office received 21,503 claims and has paid $546.2 million in claims to individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations and state, local and tribal agencies. The total includes $40.4 million to fund protective measures including fire resistant building materials, rooftop sprinklers and defensible space for new and remodeled buildings.

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