Cerro Grande, 2000
The Place: New Mexico
The Underlying Cause: Prescribed burn
The Devastation: 47,650 acres burned, 235 structures destroyed, Los Alamos National Laboratory damaged. Total cost estimated at $1 billion.
What Is Noteworthy about This Fire: Ironically, Cerro Grande began as a prescribed fire, meant to clear some vegetation buildup in the Bandelier National Monument. It was set at the beginning of fire season in the Southwest during a 3-year drought but officials felt there was enough moisture at that elevation to keep it under control. As often happens, unexpected winds caused the fire to intensify and move. In later investigations, the superintendent who was responsible for approving the burn plan admitted that he was not technically competent to do so.