U.S. takes the blame for fire at Los Alamos


SANTA FE, N.M. - With a scathing indictment of the federal response to fires that have now burned nearly 80 square miles of northern New Mexico and more than 400 homes, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said yesterday that the government was wholly to blame and would do whatever possible to compensate victims.

"The calculations that went into this were seriously flawed," Babbitt said at a news conference in which federal officials described how a planned burn for a small section in Bandelier National Monument quickly raged out of control, overtaking wide areas beyond, including the city of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear facility.

Babbitt compared the combination of poor planning and bad decisions by people in the national parks and forest services to "a cascading series of events, like a rock being dislodged down a hill, leading to a landslide."

Mistakes began with missing weather information and led to problems from a lack of firefighters, equipment and judgment about a situation that grew increasingly dangerous by the hour.

Babbitt's remarks were timed with the release of the results of a federal investigation into what happened from the evening of May 4, when park service personnel at Bandelier National Monument ignited what officials call a "prescribed fire," a means commonly used to remove dead and dried timber in an effort to reduce the possibility of a catastrophic fire.

Investigators found that almost every aspect of the plan for the prescribed fire was poorly conceived and carried out, beginning with the critical omission of wind predictions for several days into the burn.

For some reason, the investigators found, that information was not passed along to officials responsible for authorizing the burn and for managing it.

Investigators also said the park official who was in charge of the burn, Mike Powell, lacked the proper experience to manage a fire once it raced out of control.

Powell's boss, Roy Weaver, the superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, has been on administrative leave since the fires went out of control. Powell is still working at the park.

"The technical and operational experience of the burn boss was not adequate," said Dick Bahr, a burn specialist with the park service from Boise, Idaho, and one of the investigators. "He had not seen a fire of this complexity and size."

As forceful as he was in ascribing blame, Babbitt was equally strident in saying that the federal government would accept full blame for the wildfire, which was about 65 percent contained yesterday.

He said Congress was developing emergency legislation that would compensate people who lost their homes and businesses. A similar measure in 1976 helped people affected by a break in the Teton Dam in Wyoming to receive compensation within three months.

Babbitt also said the Clinton administration "is on the wavelength" to sign the pending legislation, once it passes the House and Senate, which he predicted would happen soon.

In Washington, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a Republican who represents New Mexico, said he and others in the state's congressional delegation had met with administration officials, adding that they were planning to work together "to establish some principles that we ought to incorporate in a law that will permit us to pay damages to the New Mexicans and other institutions that have been damaged by this fire."

So far, the Cerro Grande fire, as it is now known, has claimed 405 homes and closed many businesses, most of them in the Los Alamos area, which is about 45 miles from Santa Fe, the state capital. Early estimates put the aggregate loss at more than $1 billion.

Several of New Mexico's leading elected officials here built on Babbitt's remarks to assuage fears of those who suffered losses.

Gov. Gary E. Johnson, a Republican who spent much of the day with Babbitt, urged New Mexicans to "document, document, document your losses" to expedite the paperwork in making claims.

"The federal government could not have done a better job responding to a terrible situation," Johnson said. "Los Alamos was hit by an 18-wheeler, and the government was driving the 18-wheeler.

"But don't hire an attorney yet. Give the government a chance to make good on this."

The thrust of the report was to review how decisions were made leading to the initial burn, how the authorities responded, whether management personal had proper training and experience, and whether existing procedures were adequate to cover all contingencies once the fire spread.

The findings were nearly universal in their condemnation. Some of the major conclusions:

The plan for the prescribed burn was inadequate in that federal personnel did not take into account the complexities of the terrain and the material to be burned.

No one analyzed the plan with a critical eye toward unexpected developments, which resulted in ignoring the possible need for additional firefighters and equipment. As the fire spread, state and local firefighters found themselves critically overwhelmed, with some people on the lines working 24 hours and longer without a break.

The plan did not take into account predictions of wind conditions over the three to five days after the ignition. The information was missing in Weaver's assessment, and no one else he consulted mentioned it.

Coordination among federal, state and local agencies was lacking, and when other opinions were sought, there was a lack of critical analysis. "You can't rubber stamp these things," Bahr said. "Everybody has got to be involved in everything."

Once the fire spread, suppression tactics that were used did not comply with federal standards in effect since 1995, a transgression that aided the fire's growth.

"The policy is sound," said Joe Stutler, a fire operations specialist from Redmond, Ore., who was a member of the investigation team. "But federal agencies working jointly did not put it together."

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