Wireless technology helps battle the Las Conchas fire in Los Alamos, N.M.


Las Conchas Fire

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – The largest fire in New Mexico history still has some life left in it. The Las Conchas fire may be around 70% contained but continues to burn in the northern and western parts of the state. The fire is dwindling, largely due to proper communications between agencies, much of which is through wireless technology.

The most recent numbers show that the fire has destroyed 156,572 acres and 63 residences. Investigators said the fire was started after an Aspen tree fell on nearby powerlines near the Las Conchas camping grounds, igniting dry brush and spreading through gusty winds.

“The impact on the community has been huge,” said Doug Tucker, fire chief of Los Alamos County. “It’s been a devastating fire.”

Los Alamos National LaboratoryMore than 4,000 firefighters from around the country have been called in to fight the wildfire, which started June 26. The Los Alamos National Laboratory, a research center that contains nuclear material and is the birthplace of the atomic bomb, was previously threatened but has since been contained by rescuers. The fire has now shifted directions to the north and west, primarily endangering tribal lands.

While the fire has been diverted, this doesn’t mean the threat of disaster to Los Alamos is over. Due to the destruction of hillsides above the town, flash floods are a major concern. Chief Tucker said that when large rains occur it will lead to flooding, as the waters rolling off the barren hillsides are expected to carry swaths of soil and debris into Los Alamos. Tucker didn’t seem optimistic that the town’s ice rink could be salvaged when the first rains arrive.

“We’ll probably lose it,” said Tucker. “Just because of the flooding.”

None of the success of containing the fire could be possible without proper communications between agencies and firefighters. Among those facilitating the communication effort is Stephen Smith, who opened up his microwave backhaul system for use by agencies to help fight the fire.

“When the Forest Service decided to establish a command center here at the Pueblo, they asked us to provide access to our Exalt microwave system to provide them with Internet access,” said Stephen Smith, IT director for Santa Ana Pueblo. “We connected their command center to the system, and it has been working flawlessly for them ever since.”

Las Conchas Fire2The Forest Service established a fire command center at Santa Ana Pueblo, a Native American community some 80 miles from Los Alamos, to oversee firefighting efforts in the area. The agency is using the Exalt system to connect the command center to the Pueblo’s data center for Internet access to order supplies, schedule deliveries, and perform other vital functions as it directs crews against the fires threatening Los Alamos and other areas.

Jack Gorman of Access Technologies in Albuquerque, New Mexico consulted with Smith to put together and deploy his system a few months before the Las Conchas fire struck.

“It provides them with IT connectivity to get to the outside world,” said Gorman. “Up until that time, the connectivity wasn’t that good and they weren’t able to do the things they can do now.”

The agencies are using the Exalt ExploreAir 18 GHz microwave backhaul system, which is configured to carry 300 megabits per second of ethernet traffic and runs 2.5 miles between the fire command center and Santa Ana Pueblo’s administrative building.

The Sante Fe area command unit operates on the network to instruct firefighters on the most effective means to contain the blaze and provides planning and support to direct those on the front lines.

“Prioritizing resources is our main function,” said Vanessa Glynn-Linoris of Area Command Team One. “Making sure the different teams are communicating and coordinating.”

While the battle continues on at almost a full month, wireless communications systems will continue to support those on the front line until the Las Conchas fire is fully contained.

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Marc Speir