Los Alamos, with it’s nuclear facility, has been evacuated again. The NMNational Guard is busy helping with the fires near Alamagordo, as is the California, Colorado and North Carolina Air National Guard. From the BBC:

The town outside Los Alamos National Laboratory was evacuated on Monday.

On Wednesday, there were expected to be between 600 to 800 firefighters tackling the blaze, deputy incident commander Mike Bradley told the Albuquerque Journal, adding that the number could climb as high as 1,000….

The Environmental Protection Agency has deployed air monitors and aircraft that can monitor radiation levels, amid fears the blaze could reach a cache of 30,000 drums, each containing 55 gallons (208 litres) of plutonium-contaminated waste.

All those fighting and helping with the fires are in our prayers….because I remember the year 2000, when  the CerroGrande fire in the year 2000 devastated Los Alamos

It’s global warming, and I blame the end of the little ice age for the gradual drying of the western USA. And a lot of folks point out that there is a man made componant to these huge fires: stopping small fires might make things worse, because of all that dead wood lying around…

But, like the year 2000, the Los Alamos fire is not the only fire in the area: There have been huge grass fires in Texas and Arizona, and there are fires near Silver City and in southern New Mexico near the Mescalaro reservation where I once worked.

This time, it was lighting that started a  fire on Sam Donaldson’s ranch that has burnt 43000 acres and spread to the the reservation.

When we had nearby fires in 2000, we had to make evacuation plans for the hospital, just in case…the area is mountainous, and the fires can “flash” with the wind down the narrow canyons, so they can spread easily.

And you can’t keep people in a hospital when there is smoke in the air…some of our employees quit to fight the fires back then, and we still could see the scars/deforestated areas from a previous fire nearby.
The lowlands tend to be drier and have trees mainly around the rivers, so there is a danger of grass fires, but in the mountains, the tall trees often catch like tinder and with the winds blowing down the canyons, you have to leave or risk being caught in a firestorm.

The Mescalero used to have their own fire fighting group, who often left to fight forest fires

all over the west. But when I googled to find where they were working, I found a federal budgetary cut back in the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) disbanded the Mescalero and Bearpaw (MT) Hotshot groups.

We’d see the hotshots in the spring and order them medicine for their first aid kits. Some of them were young women: The Apache women are taught to be strong and independent.

The area is beautiful, but the hospital so crappy that we were understaffed and overworked because we couldn’t keep help. For example, in the year 2000, we had no lab after 5 pm and in the winter, and because the federal regulations make it so slow to hire a replacement for our X ray technician, we had no x ray at all for three months…. in the middle of winter we were expected to send everyone over a 7000 foot mountain pass for routine x rays, not to transfer the patients (we had limited funding for care in outside hospitals unless it was an emergency).

When the aged and overworked heating system caught fire and spread toxic fumes throughout the hospital, we had to shut the hospital for a couple days, which made me happy, ( because back in the 1970’s, when our IHS hospital in the Sioux area lost it’s heating system in the middle of a Dakota winter, we had to stay open: and I had to deliver babies with only portable spaceheaters to keep the delivery room warm….Hello: Spaceheaters don’t mix with oxygen…but never mind, things have improved since then).

I left after a year of overwork. It wasn’t exactly a nice place to work: the people were (as expected) hostile to those working in the hospital,  partly because they always saw a new face, and partly because the overworked staff didn’t have time to get to know them and their problems, which is an important part of caring for people in medicine.

So when I hear about why we need federalized health care, I think of Mescalero, and some of the other understaffed poorly equipped and slow-to-fix things IHS hospitals where I worked. But things, as I noted, are improving: not because of the Federal government, but because the tribes have started using their own money (from oil/mining or casinos) to run things.

If you want photos of the Mescalero area, check out the Huffblog post by Jay Tavarae

Actor Jay Tavare, whose birthparents were White Mountain Apache and Navajo, has a report with photos about attending an “honor your life” meeting at the Mescalero High School, and writes about the Apache he met, and mentions the nearby fire on that blog.

We left the Mescalero Apache rez on Friday, but our adventure was not over. The massive Arizona/New Mexico fire was not on our minds during our time on the reservation. But when we reached the interstate border we were met by an fast advancing wall of fire; the highways were closed and emergency personnel told us to make a very quick retreat! We must either go south through Mexico or go north through Albuquerque. With two Germans on board, we decided it was best to stay in the United States, so we went north. As we backtracked to the long detour route, we saw firefighters battling countless hot spots on either side of the road. We felt lucky that we did not have to abandon our vehicle like some of our fellow road travelers who we saw walking through the smoke along the highway.

So although the Los Alamos fires are the ones in the news, like the year 2000, there are numerous other fires that are being fought by local and outsiders, that won’t get any publicity or thanks except from those of us who have been through such fire danger.


Fireinformation blog here.


Nancy Reyes is a physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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