Babbitt says a chain of mistakes caused Los Alamos fire

SANTA FE, N.M. - The National Park Service officials who started the devastating Los Alamos blaze did not follow proper procedures and did not have enough fire crews on hand to keep it under control, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Thursday.

Babbitt released the results of a preliminary investigation into the blaze, which was set May 4 to clear brush at the nearby Bandelier National Monument but was driven out of control by wind that gusted to more than 50 mph.

The blaze forced 25,000 people to flee, scorched 47,000 acres, left 405 families homeless and damaged the storied Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory. The fire was still only 60 percent contained Thursday.

''It's clear there were large mistakes of agency oversight,'' Babbitt said.

''The causal chain of this fire is quite complex. I would liken it to what happens on a mountainside when a rock is dislodged,'' he said. That one rock can create a ''cascading series of events.''

The report said Bandelier employee Mike Powell, who directly oversaw the prescribed burn, notified firefighting dispatchers in Santa Fe the morning of May 4 that the burn was to take place that evening. A dispatcher expressed concern that Bandelier was lighting a fire when the Forest Service already had suspended prescribed burns because of high wind and dry weather, the report said.

The report said that the burn plan was inadequate, underestimating potential threats to the public's and firefighters' safety, and was not ''substantively reviewed'' before it was approved by Bandelier Superintendent Roy Weaver. He has taken responsibility for the blaze and has been placed on leave.

''There's a tendency to rubber-stamp decisions made by people at the field level,'' Babbitt said. ''That is an unacceptable paradigm.''

There was no answer Thursday at Weaver's home. There was no listing for Powell in northern New Mexico.

The report also found a ''number of critical deviations from both the prescribed fire plan and standard fire practices.'' That included not putting firefighters on standby before starting the fire.

''Los Alamos has been hit by an 18-wheeler, and the government was driving that 18-wheeler,'' Gov. Gary Johnson said at Babbitt's news conference. He also asked the people of New Mexico to ''give the government a chance to make good on this.''

About 1,200 firefighters were still on the scene Thursday, strengthening fire breaks, extinguishing hot spots and attacking the fire's still-active northwestern flank.

Weather was working in firefighters' favor - low temperatures and wind of only 10 mph to 15 mph.

''Things are looking up,'' said Scott Sticha, a fire spokesman. ''There's actually folks starting to head home.''

Danne DeBacker, whose home in the northwestern part of Los Alamos was destroyed, drank beer with friends in a dim bar in a shopping mall as he watched the interior secretary on television.

''I'm sad, not just for my house, but for the forest,'' DeBacker said. ''Before these little black sticks were standing around here, we had a really pristine forest.''

On the Net: Fire investigation report:

National Park Service:

Forest Service:


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