N.M. Park Superintendent To Retire

Saturday, June 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The national park superintendent who approved a brush-clearing fire that raged out of control and scorched 47,000 acres to become the worst wildfire in state history is retiring because of the controversy over his decision.

Roy Weaver said he will retire on July 2 after 33 years with the National Park Service, the last 10 as superintendent at Bandelier National Monument.

``You wouldn't want to end it this way, that's for sure,'' Weaver said Friday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in White Rock.

Weaver had planned to retire next April and move back to his hometown in Grand Junction, Colo. But the fire changed that forever.

``I have had a successful career overall,'' Weaver said. ``I have the respect from my co-workers and my staff. That's important to me.''

Weaver had said he believed conditions were right last month for the park to begin its annual regimen of prescribed burning — designed to burn off underbrush to keep the park's backcountry from becoming a tinder box.

The prescribed burn was started May 4. Fueled by low humidity and high winds, it quickly raged out of control. By May 10, the blaze spread into Los Alamos, forcing the evacuation of more than 20,000 people from the town where the atomic bomb was built. Residents in neighboring White Rock also were forced to leave as more than 200 homes were destroyed.

Weaver was placed on paid administrative leave in mid-May, and a government report blamed Park Service officials for poor planning and several mistakes in carrying out the prescribed fire.

``I would approve a prescribed burn again,'' he said. ``If I knew this would happen, I wouldn't. But we made the best decision we could with the information we had at the time.''

Weaver's comments Friday were his first publicly since the leave was imposed. He said he could not discuss the fire because of the ongoing investigation.

``I guess heartsick would be the best adjective,'' to describe how he felt after the fire, Weaver said. ``I was just feeling for those people, what they must be going through. I was worried about their property and keepsakes.''

He said some of his friends lost their homes in the fire.

``Bless their hearts, they are still friends,'' he said. ``And when someone who lost their home says, `Don't beat up yourself,' that really says something about the community.''

Though Weaver and his wife received some abusive messages, ``we've received close to 200 letters, cards and e-mail messages of encouragement and support from all over,'' he said. ``A big portion came from Los Alamos, including folks that lost their home.''

Meanwhile Friday, the damage total to the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory could reach $300 million, said Jim Holt, the lab's program director.

Additionally, six postdoctoral employees lost valuable information stored in computers that were in mobile buildings at the edge of the lab. The lost research was part of a three-year fellowship for the workers that determines their career paths.

The lab is trying to extend the fellowships to allow the employees to complete their work, Holt said.

In all, about 8,000 acres of the lab property were burned. Officials said 39 temporary structures, including trailer and small storage units, were destroyed but no major structures were significantly damaged.

Meanwhile, an underground dump used in the early days of the lab remains ablaze, though it's unclear how deep the fire is burning, said Lee McAtee, the lab's deputy director for environmental and health safety. There is no apparent public health threat, he said.

Rick Frost, a park service spokesman, said it would be up to the agency's board of inquiry to decide if any disciplinary action would be taken against Weaver.

Weaver said he has spent the last month preparing to appear before the board.

Aside from that, he said he wasn't sure what retirement might hold for him.

``I have no idea, I haven't thought that far yet,'' he said. ``It happened all of a sudden.''