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Plan gave warning of wildfire danger

A National Park Service plan for igniting what has become the largest fire in New Mexico history said the danger that the blaze would escape beyond its bounds was "moderate." It said any damage would likely be confined to "timber and private land values," not buildings.

At the same time, however, the plan warned that federal officials might be underestimating the danger that such a fire, set to reduce the possibility of dangerous, unplanned fires, might spill beyond its intended limits.

"You have not lost one in a long time and are starting to feel a little smug," said the 250-page plan, dated April 19 and filed with the National Park Service headquarters in Washington.

It has been reported that before the fire was set, the National Weather Service told Park Service officials that winds would be brisk, humidity low and the chance of volatility high. Park Service officials have said they knew there was some danger of the fire spreading, but that conditions for a successful controlled fire were similar to those for a wildfire.

A copy of the plan was made available by federal investigators who are tracing the decisions that led to the fire, which has consumed more than 46,000 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes and shut the nation's leading nuclear weapons laboratory.

Early results of the investigation are scheduled to be released in Los Alamos today, when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will arrive to oversee an event that has the potential to reshape the government's fire policy.

Already, in the days since the Los Alamos blaze began to rage out of control, the government has imposed a 30-day ban in the West on the kinds of deliberate firestarting that led to the conflagration. The fire was set by the Park Service at Bandelier National Monument on May 4 to diminish the chances of a wildfire. The goal was to clear away underbrush that had accumulated over years.

On Wednesday, fire officials said, firefighters had controlled about 45 percent of the blaze. The remaining portion was burning in heavily forested areas north and east of Los Alamos, out of range of human habitation.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory, the founding home of the nation's nuclear weapons program, remains closed, along with schools and most businesses in the area. Most Los Alamos residents have been allowed to return home, but at least 20 percent of the town remains off-limits, with more than 400 structures burned.

About one in 100 of the controlled fires ignited by federal workers typically escapes beyond the expected bounds, Forest Service officials said.

In the case of the Los Alamos fire, the report filed in April calculated fire's expected range at 968 acres. Instead, driven by high winds and fueled by dry weather conditions, it has consumed about 50 times that amount of territory.

Help for owners of bonds

WASHINGTON _ The Treasury Department said Wednesday that it is taking steps to assist some victims of wildfires in New Mexico who own U.S. savings bonds.

The department's Bureau of Public Debt said it is expediting procedures for both the replacement, as well as the payment of savings bonds for owners living in the counties of Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe. Should additional counties be declared disaster areas, the special procedures for savings bonds owners will apply to those areas too, the bureau said.