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Hondo Fire Article

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by James E. Stone

From an article in Fire Management Notes
Volume 56, No.4, 1996
United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service

Within hours after the Hondo Fire started on May 5, 1996, near San Cristobal and Taos, NM, the neighboring town of Lama was burned through. Some structures remained, but many were destroyed. Families in nearby Red River and portions of the town of Questa were evacuated. Before this incident was over, about 2,000 individuals were displaced or evacuated from their homes, and portions of some highways were closed to all but local residents and fire traffic.

Once the Nation's media learned about the devastation, it wasn't long before the entire country was aware of the Hondo Fire. Information officers from various agencies, stationed in the supervisor's office on the Carson National Forest in Taos, were accessible to the media and the community. The national, interagency incident command (IC) team, located near the Hondo Fire, held daily briefings for the community and escorted media representatives to the fireline. In addition, the IC team organized tours for and provided information to a variety of people including Jim Lyons, the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, and New Mexico's Governor Gary Johnson, Congressman Bill Richardson, Senator Jeff Bingaman, and Senator Pete Domenici's staff.

Forest Supervisor Leonard Lucero of the Carson National Forest briefs Jim Lyons (left), Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, and Sarah McCourt, Lyon's special assistant for communications, at the Hondo Fire near Taos, New Mexico. Photo: Lester Swindle; State of New Mexico; Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department; Santa Fe, NM, 1996.

Of course, there was no one more interested in the events than the evacuees themselves and their friends and neighbors. No matter how much information was reported, they seemed always to want more details about this multifaceted incident.

Enter the World Wide Web
Less than 24 hours after the fire began, the La Plaza de Taos Telecommunity (an intracommunity network in Taos, NM, that shares information of local interest via the World Wide Web) received an electronic message asking why their "Web site" carried nothing about the wildfire in the area. In 45 minutes, the La Plaza Telecommunity responded by establishing the "Hondo Fire Emergency Information Web Site."

Managing Director Patrick J. Finn and his 14-member telecommunity staff quickly contacted their neighbors-the fire information officers-who were nearby (across a parking lot). While the information officers provided a great deal of pertinent material, the La Plaza Telecommunity did not stop with just one source of information. Soon they had established various "pages" on their Web site such as "Breaking News from KTAO Radio, Taos," "Forest Service Fire Report Updates," "Road Information," "National News Reports," and "Support and Assistance Information."

Now, and in the future, the Information Superhighway can be used to send and receive important communications during wildland fires.

Finn explains, "We strongly believe in collaborating with public agencies to disseminate emergency and disaster information." The first day online, the Telecommunity's "assistance information" included the fact that a local bank had already received $1,700 in the just-established Hondo Fire Fund. Also the page could alert the global community of evacuees' requirements in messages such as the following: "Sandwiches, diapers, baby food, boxes, packing tape, and ice are needed, but enough clothing has already been received, thank you."

Various community people used the Web site's message page to post informative notices as well as requests for information-sometimes these users were searching for specific individuals who couldn't be located.

By close of business May 9, the Web site had received over 5,000 "hits" (number of times various users accessed the page). People owning property in the vicinity - including those who were on vacation or on business halfway around the world - thanked the Web site for providing information they would not have received otherwise. Property owners who at the time of the fire were in Japan and England said, "If it had not been for the Web site, I would not have known my home was threatened."

Fire suppression efforts began early and earnestly after the Hondo Fire was discovered about noon on Sunday, May 5, 1996. Incident Commander Gary Loving from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and his national incident management team were quickly on the scene to oversee what eventually became a total of 30 fire crews. They also supervised a variety of aircraft that moved people and cargo, delivered fire retardant, or made strategic observations. As the accompanying article makes clear, the day after the fire began, people around the world could get specific information about individuals and property involved in any way with this disaster. It is apparent that in the ftiture, the Information Superhighway can play an important communication role during wildland fire disasters.

Emergency Communication Services Evolve
Most of us know that in the past when conventional communication lines have been severed, other kinds of communication links evolve. For instance, during the 1964 Alaska earthquake, amateur radio operators provided the communication link and secured "ham" radio's emergency information niche in the world.

By providing the Web site for crucial information during the Hondo Fire near Taos, NM, the La Plaza Telecommunity has no doubt secured Internet's role for the future.

Welcome to the Information Superhighway
La Plaza started from "scratch" on this disaster. Because of a pressing need, they set up a Web site that was invaluable to the community. They are now maintaining a skeleton "disaster web" for future use. Pages will include a list of public service contacts. Finn says, "The La Plaza Telecommunity will continue to collaborate with public agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service to disseminate information-depending upon the nature of the disaster." For more information on setting up a disaster home page, contact Patrick J. Finn at (505) 758-1836, or La Plaza's home page at

The Forest Service's home page at the national office in Washington, D.C., has a fire section, where general information on those fires significant to a national audience is posted. That Internet address is

James Stone is an audiovisual production specialist for the USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Region, Information Systems and Technology, Ogden, UT. For the Hondo Fire described here, he was one ofthe interagency fire information officers.

For additional information from the author of this article, contact him via his e-mail address -