Babbitt to Release N.M. Fire Report

Wednesday, May 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt could face the white-hot anger of Los Alamos' residents when he visits on Thursday to explain how a government-ordered brush-clearing fire raged out of control and destroyed their homes.

``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.

Babbitt is expected to release a preliminary report on what went wrong with a fire that was set May 4 by the National Park Service to clear out 968 acres of brush in the wilderness. The fire raged out of control and burned nearly 47,000 acres, leaving 405 families homeless.

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.

On Wednesday, nearly 1,300 firefighters battled the blaze outside of town. Shifting winds pushed the flames toward already-charred land, giving firefighters a boost. By midday, officials said fire lines had been built around 45 percent of the blaze.

``We feel that we are very secure right here in Los Alamos,'' Forest Service spokesman Jim Paxon said.

He said close to 1,000 acres have burned on the Baca Ranch, a majestic 95,000-acre volcanic area the Forest Service plans to purchase for recreation, such as fishing and hiking.

Meanwhile, families escorted by National Guardsmen making quick trips into Los Alamos to gather valuables, pets and other necessities.

Dr. Anthony Sandoval, a cardiologist, brought his wife, Mary, and their six children home for a 30-minute frenzy of packing. Tops on the list: school books and two parakeets.

Their wood-and-stucco home escaped damage, but around the corner, a neighbor's house was burned to the foundation. And a home nearby that the Sandovals had been remodeling also was destroyed. The Sandovals had hoped to move in by Christmas.

``It backs up right the forest, and that's why we bought it,'' Mary Sandoval said. ``It was a beautiful location. It had really nice pine trees in the back yard, and that's probably what did it.''

The fire threatened the nation's top nuclear weapons laboratory and destroyed several portable buildings. The lab's main buildings were spared.

Still unclear was whether smoke from the blaze contained radiation that may have been set free as flames rolled across the laboratory.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Eugene Brezany, said a slight boost in background radiation is expected any time there is a forest fire. Preliminary results released Wednesday appear to indicate that those increases are being captured in air samples, Brezany said.

Not everyone was ready to rage at Babbitt.

``I feel we should start from here and go forward and not be laying blame on people,'' said Judy Hutson, 64, who still had no idea whether her home was still standing. She was denied access to the area because it had not yet been checked for hazardous waste.