Babbitt: No Charges in N.M. Fires

Friday, May 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A ``systematic failure'' in the Park Service led to a wildfire that left 405 families homeless, but Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt say today there was no criminal negligence and there will be no criminal charges.

``These are mistakes,'' Babbitt said on NBC's ``Today'' show this morning, the day after releasing a report blaming the fire on a series of errors. ``There's nobody out there conspiring to burn down the forests.''

Although he said he expects some personnel actions once a review board finishes its investigation next week, ``you don't prosecute people for making mistakes.''

He does expects policy changes, however.

``It was a systematic failure in the Park Service. I think we are going to have to go back as a result of this investigation and revamp the fire program from A to Z. ... We owe that to the American people,'' Babbitt said.

``These forests are too thick,'' he said. ``They're explosive, they're dangerous, and the reason is because fire has been excluded for 100 years and there's too much fuel in the forests, too many trees.''

A preliminary report released Thursday by Babbitt concluded that National Park Service officials who started the fire May 4 to clear brush did not follow proper procedures and did not have enough fire crews on hand to keep it under control. The fire forced 25,000 people in and around Los Alamos to evacuate for up to five days and scorched more than 47,000 acres.

``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.''

Set at the nearby Bandelier National Monument, the blaze was driven out of control by wind gusting to more than 50 mph. The fire damaged some portable buildings at the storied Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

The fire was 70 percent contained Thursday, and officials said they hoped to have it completely corralled next week. The areas burning now, though, are a distance away from Los Alamos and most residents are back in their homes.

Babbitt and federal lawmakers pledged to work on legislation to pay all fire victims for losses not covered by insurance or emergency assistance. The White House also said the government will accept responsibility and take care of those who lost homes and businesses.

``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 Thursday. He asked the people of New Mexico to ``give the government a chance to make good on this.''

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

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 because the Forest Service had suspended prescribed burns as a result of high winds and dry weather.

The investigation found that the plan was not ``substantively reviewed'' before it was approved by Bandelier Superintendent Roy Weaver, who has taken responsibility for the blaze and 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.''

Weaver has declined interviews and there was no answer Thursday at his home. There was no listing for Powell in northern New Mexico.

The stage was set for the fire's escape on May 7, three days after it was set. Fire crew members started a backburn in a flat area full of dead wood in an attempt to rob the original fire of fuel and halt its southward advance.

Investigators said the ``burnout'' should have been set farther north, in an area with less fuel and steeper slopes.

Complicating the problem was the fact that Park Service officials had requested a spot weather report for the wrong day and were unaware that winds were predicted to increase, said John Snook, a Forest Service official who was one of the investigators. Those steady winds blew to the northeast and pushed the flames over a ridge, the report said.

Once the fire topped the ridge, winds carried embers outside the prescribed burn area and the fire established itself on the other side.

From there it moved steadily toward Los Alamos.

The Energy Department said Thursday it could cost as much as $150 million to clean up Los Alamos National Laboratory and reopen it.

Sitting in a dimly lit bar Thursday in Los Alamos, Danne DeBacker watched Babbitt and other federal officials on television explain the mistakes.

``They're just saying, 'Here's what happened.' We already know what happened — the damned forest burned down,'' said DeBacker, whose home in the northwest part of Los Alamos was destroyed.

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

Hal and Judy DeHaven, who lost their home of 23 years, were at the bar with DeBacker.

``There was a lot of irresponsibility here,'' DeHaven said. ``They weren't prepared for what happened. This confirms our suspicion that they burned our houses down and they owe us something.''


On the Net: Fire investigation report:

National Park Service:

Forest Service: