SANTA FE, NM - The bedroom communities surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory turned into smoky and charred ghost towns as an out-of-control fire continued its relentless march Thursday.
Roy Weaver, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, where the fire began as a "controlled burn" last week, was placed on leave with pay.
Raging flames and heavy smoke forced the evacuation of two large communities - Los Alamos and White Rock - and an evacuation alert was issued for smaller towns nearby, including Espanola and Abiquiu to the north.
About 1,000 firefighters continued to fight the blaze that spread across 20,000 acres, boosted by gusty winds and dry conditions. Nearly 18,000 people have been displaced from their homes. No fatalities have been reported.
"We may just be seeing the beginning of what is a real catastrophe," Gov. Gary Johnson said.
Authorities were on edge statewide, worried that tinder-dry conditions caused after months of drought could explode into fire elsewhere.
The 8,650-acre Cree fire, 150 miles southeast of Albuquerque near Ruidoso, was 35 percent contained Thursday as firefighters battled 35-mph winds.
"Because everything is bone dry around here, every ember that hits the ground starts a fire - 100 percent ignition," said Karen Miranda, Cree fire spokeswoman.
The biggest question in Los Alamos still unanswered is who is to blame for a blaze initially set May 4 by National Park Service rangers as a standard technique to help prevent wildfires. The blaze grew in intensity after other controlled fires were set as a way to manage the burn.
On Wednesday, embers were up to a mile high jumping into Los Alamos Canyon and running the blaze out of control.
The controlled fire apparently was set against the advice of the National Weather Service. Weather officials had reportedly sent out a fax warning firefighters that it was not the time for a controlled burn because of the dry conditions.
"Somebody made a mistake, and obviously we have to find out who," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. "Did somebody do something that should not have been done, given the drought and dry conditions?"
Touring the area
Mr. Domenici toured the area Thursday with Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who's from New Mexico; James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Congressional hearings have been called to determine how and why the fire spread.
Mr. Weaver, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, just south of Los Alamos, took responsibility early Thursday.
"It was my decision" to set the fires, Mr. Weaver said.
Karen Wade, director of the intermountain regional office of the Park Service, said Mr. Weaver's leave was "administrative in nature and in no way" reflected on his "decisions regarding the fire."
Rick Frost, a Park Service spokesman in Santa Fe, said it's not unusual to place an employee on leave while the agency investigates an administrative decision. He said an interagency group would investigate the prescribed burn, but it's uncertain how long it would take to complete.
Mr. Weaver has worked for the Park Service for 33 years, including the last 10 years in charge of Bandelier. His salary is $79,849 a year.
Mr. Weaver generally has overseen two or three controlled burns each year at Bandelier.
"He's a veteran of these," Mr. Frost said.
More than 300 National Guard members converged in the region to help with evacuation efforts after the governor and President Clinton declared the region a disaster area.
No end in sight
The blaze is expected to go on for days, with no control foreseen. Orderly evacuations, however, reduced the potential for life-threatening injuries. Many sought refuge in shelters in Santa Fe and surrounding areas.
Preliminary reports indicate that more than 100 homes in Los Alamos have been destroyed and dozens more damaged. Rep. Tom Udall, whose district includes Los Alamos, said federal officials estimated 300 to 400. The houses were primarily located along the forest's edge in the northern and western areas of the town.
But many more homes are expected to go down in flames.
In Los Alamos, smoldering suburban streets looked like a checkerboard, with perfectly intact homes standing just feet from blackened foundations.
The fire was selective, in one western area choosing only one home among dozens lining a street. Burned stems of ponderosa lay next to blooming lilac bushes. The earth looked prehistoric, with smoke rising from the ground and flames spontaneously shooting upward, fed by strong gusts of wind.
Only emergency personnel were on the roadway, which was speckled with abandoned cars. Some parked in driveways were completely charred. Firefighters could be seen scaling the canyon walls, trying to cut down burning trees and burned underbrush.
"This is unbelievable," said Kevin Purtyman, a Los Alamos police officer. "I hope it's over soon."
By Thursday afternoon, the fire was moving north at a fast pace, threatening to destroy homes in White Rock, which was engulfed in black smoke. The evacuation in that community began in the predawn hours after authorities deemed the amount of smoke a health hazard.
Heavy smoke also hung over Espanola, a tiny village primarily made up of longtime Hispanic residents.
Abiquiu, famous as a setting for paintings by New Mexico artist Georgia O'Keeffe, is sparsely populated.
Jim Paxon, lead information officer for the Forest Service, defended the work of firefighters.
"There is not a thing we could have done," he said.
Authorities insisted that the laboratory remains a safe place, although the fire moved onto the lab property.
"There are no radiological releases," said Mr. Richardson. "The human tragedy is what we have to deal with."
"This is not an issue of national security," added Mr. Bingaman.
No damage at lab
Fire did burn through some explosive areas of the laboratory site, but no significant damage was reported. The material is stored in bunkers designed for it to burn rather than explode.
The weapons site of the laboratory where titanium is stored is in a "lock-down mode" said Dick Urick, of the laboratory.
"It's in a very safe condition." It is still not clear just how much damage the fire has caused nor when it will stop.
"We don't really know what's out there," said Mr. Paxon. "We know we've got a lot of fire and a lot of smoke."
The fire was spreading in every direction except west, authorities said.
Residents of the area opened their homes to fire victims. Luxury hotels offered reduced rates, and department stores issued gift certificates for those in need of supplies. Leaders collected food and clothing, as well as funds for the rebuilding effort.
As Bernadette Forman, 32, of Santa Fe made her way through town in search of a place to drop off a donation, she brimmed with contempt over the situation.
"It's absolutely heartbreaking, and I feel very angry," she said. "This is a tragedy that didn't have to happen."
Santa Fe free-lance writer Zelie Pollon contributed to this report.