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'Critical Mistakes' by Park Service Led to Los Alamos Fire

Disaster: Preliminary report finds officials failed to follow procedures. White House says homeowners will be fully compensated.

May 19, 2000|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — National Park Service officials who deliberately ignited the fire that ravaged Los Alamos, N.M., did not follow proper procedures and failed to ensure that enough firefighters were available to control the blaze, according to a preliminary report by the Interior Department.

An investigative team appointed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt concluded Thursday that Park Service officials "failed to properly plan and implement" established procedures for a controlled burn. Throughout the process "critical mistakes were made," the team said.

White House officials, meanwhile, said hundreds of property owners who suffered losses when the New Mexico fire spread for six days would be "fully compensated," perhaps with a special appropriation by Congress.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters that White House Chief of Staff John Podesta is meeting with congressional leaders to determine the best plan for compensating victims of the fire.

As the blaze, which has burned more than 200 homes and 47,650 acres, was reported 70% contained Thursday, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) said that "basically the Park Service screwed up bad, and I don't know how it could be worse."

An estimated 1,200 firefighters--aided by lower temperatures and lighter winds--were working Thursday near Los Alamos. As they strengthened fire breaks, extinguished hot spots and attacked the fire's most dangerous, northwest flank, more residents returned to their homes.

Although Park Service officials have attributed the disaster to unexpectedly high winds, the Interior Department report was the first documentation of the government errors that were aggravated by the forces of nature.

The report said that when officials at Bandelier National Monument started the fire May 4 to burn underbrush, they failed to evaluate conditions in adjacent areas. They also failed to adequately consider the threat that would be posed to public safety if the fire spread, according to the document.

The report said Mike Powell, a Bandelier employee who supervised the prescribed burn, alerted fire dispatchers in Santa Fe several hours before the burn was to begin. The fire was ignited, investigators reported, despite a warning from a dispatcher that another federal agency--the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department--had already suspended controlled burning in the area because of adverse weather conditions.

The burn plan also should not have been approved by Bandelier Supt. Roy Weaver, the report said. Weaver, who has taken responsibility for the wildfire, has been placed on administrative leave.

Other "critical mistakes," according to investigators, were the Park Service's failure "to provide adequate contingency resources to successfully suppress the fire" and failure to obtain wind predictions in the forecast for May 7-9.

The report said that federal fire-control policies are still sound but that their success "depends upon strict adherence" to the thorough implementation of accepted procedures "throughout every agency and at every level."

At the White House, Lockhart declined to discuss what legal liability the government may have incurred in the blaze. "I don't want to get into a legal argument here," he said. "I think we're going to look at what's the best way to move forward in compensating."

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