Firefighters Gain Ground in N.M.

Thursday, May 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — It's up to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to explain to burned-out residents how a fire ordered by the National Park Service roared out of control and left hundreds of families homeless.

With cooler weather and favorable winds forecast for firefighters battling the monster blaze, Babbitt faced a firestorm of his own as he prepared to release a preliminary report today on what went wrong.

``If I think about it, I get very angry. It's ludicrous. There's no reason any of us should have lost our homes under these circumstances,'' said Tory Temple, 24, whose parents lost their home.

The May 4 controlled burn at Bandelier National Monument was supposed to clear 968 acres of brush. But high winds quickly whipped it into a wildfire that rolled over the town of Los Alamos, burning scores of homes and charring more than 47,000 acres.

The fire threatened the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory but spared the main buildings. Still unclear was whether smoke from the blaze contained radiation.

Eugene Brezany, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said a slight boost in background radiation is expected during any forest fire. Preliminary results released Wednesday appear to indicate increases in air samples, he said.

By early 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.

Firefighters were holding their lines this morning, working by hand to clear areas on the western and northern portions of the blaze, said Scott Sticha, a fire information officer.

``Things are looking up,'' Sticha said. ``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. West winds should help by pushing the flames back toward acreage already consumed by fire.

The report from Babbitt, among other things, was expected to indicate whether Bandelier fire officials considered a National Weather Service report warning of high winds and low humidity during the burn.

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

``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.

Not everyone was ready to rage at Babbitt.

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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