Proper procedures not followed in New Mexico fire, officials say

Firefighters gain ground as feds prep fire report

Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2000

Editor's Note: The breaking news item listed in today's Empire was in error. The report on stock was dated and should not have been listed. The following article is today's breaking news.

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The National Park Service officials who started the fire that devastated Los Alamos did not follow proper procedures and did not have enough fire crews on hand to keep the blaze under control, according to a preliminary investigation by the Interior Department.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., said today the investigation found flaws in the plan to burn underbrush at Bandelier National Monument. She also said it found that monument officials did not have weather reports that could have shown the fire was likely to get out of control.

``Basically, the Park Service screwed up bad, and I don't know how it could be worse,'' Wilson said.

The report refers to a ``burn boss'' named Mike Powell, who worked at the Bandelier National Monument and directly oversaw the prescribed burn. It says Powell notified firefighting dispatchers in Santa Fe the morning of May 4 that the burn was to take place that evening. A dispatcher had expressed concern that Bandelier was lighting a fire when the Forest Service had already suspended prescribed fire activities because of adverse conditions, the report said.

The fire plan had a checklist, and the report said that Powell did not follow that checklist.

The report says before the fire was started, another official by the name of Al King was entrusted as the ``holding boss,'' in charge of making sure whether the fire stayed in its parameters. King called the National Weather Service at 7 p.m., confirming winds cited in an earlier spot weather forecast.

About 3:30 a.m. on May 5, Powell called Santa Fe dispatchers to ask for a Forest Service helicopter and 20 firefighters. He was told to call back later in the morning. He started calling back at about 6:30 a.m., and didn't reach a dispatcher until 7:30 a.m., asking for the helicopter and firefighters again. The dispatcher said he had to check with others before filling the order and talked with another Bandelier official. The helicopter arrived at 10:30 and the firefighters at 11.

The investigation found that the prescribed burn plan was ``not adequate.''

The fire plan was ``not substantively reviewed'' before it was approved by the Bandelier superintendent, that being Roy Weaver, according to the report.

Weaver, the park superintendent who took responsibility for igniting the blaze, has been placed on leave.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt released the preliminary investigation results this afternoon, calling the fire's cause the result of a complex chain of failures.

Monument officials started the fire May 4 and high winds blew it out of control. The fire burned over 200 homes in Los Alamos and more than 47,000 acres. It also threatened the storied Los Alamos nuclear laboratory but spared the main buildings.

Wilson, in an interview from Washington, said the report found that the official supervising the prescribed burn ``wasn't qualified technically to do the job.'' She said that official did not review conditions at the fire site before starting the fire.

``They failed to follow safety policies for firefighters and the public,'' Wilson said.

Wilson did not say whether the report identified the official.

By today, the fire was 60 percent contained. There are still 1,200 firefighters active around Los Alamos, strengthening fire breaks, extinguishing hot spots and attacking the fire's still-active northwest flank.

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

A team specially trained to rehabilitate burned areas arrived Monday, he said.

Weather was working in firefighters' favor - low temperatures and wind predicted to reach only 10-15 mph, Sticha said.

Some residents who lost their homes were angry at Weaver.

``We're hoping that if he's guilty, we can get something back. Everything we owned is gone,'' said Tracie Korth, 29, who is expecting twins in August. She and her husband lost their rented home and had no insurance.

As Gloria Brown combed through the rubble of her home Wednesday, she and her husband managed to salvage a couple of small ceramic pots. Little else was left of the 26 years they spent there.

``I'm not angry. I don't think it was intentionally done,'' she said. ``Maybe Roy Weaver used bad judgment, but he's human.''

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