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Babbitt: Bad plans, errors led to fires

Published Sep. 27, 2005

With a scathing indictment of the federal response to fires that have now burned nearly 80 square miles of northern New Mexico and more than 400 housing units, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Thursday that the government was wholly to blame and would do whatever possible to compensate victims.

"The calculations that went into this were seriously flawed," Babbitt said at a news conference in which federal officials described how a planned burn for a small section in Bandelier National Monument quickly raged out of control.

The fires overtook wide areas beyond that section, including the city of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear facility.

Babbitt compared the combination of poor planning and bad decisions by people in the national parks and forest services to "a cascading series of events, like a rock being dislodged down a hill, leading to a landslide."

Mistakes began with missing weather information and led to problems from a lack of firefighters, equipment and judgment about a situation that grew increasingly dangerous by the hour.

Babbitt's remarks were timed with the release of the results of a federal investigation into what happened beginning the evening of May 4, when park service personnel at Bandelier National Monument ignited what officials call a "prescribed fire," a means commonly used to remove dead and dried timber in an effort to reduce the possibility of a catastrophic fire.

Investigators found that almost every aspect of the plan for the prescribed fire was poorly conceived and carried out, beginning with the critical omission of wind predictions for several days into the burn. For some reason, the investigators found, that information was not passed along to officials responsible for authorizing the burn and for managing it.

Investigators also said the park official who was in charge of the burn, Mike Powell, lacked the proper experience to manage a fire if it raced out of control. Powell's boss, Roy Weaver, the superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, has been on administrative leave since the fires flared out of control. Powell is still working at the park.

"The technical and operational experience of the burn boss was not adequate," said Dick Bahr, a burn specialist with the park service from Boise, Idaho, and one of the investigators. "He had not seen a fire of this complexity and size."

As forceful as he was in ascribing blame, Babbitt was equally strident in saying the federal government would accept full blame for the wildfire, which was about 65 percent contained Thursday. He said Congress was developing emergency legislation that would compensate people who lost their homes and businesses. A similar measure in 1976 helped people affected by the collapse of the Teton Dam in Idaho to receive compensation within three months.

Babbitt also said the Clinton administration "is on the wavelength" to sign the pending legislation, once it passes the House and Senate, which he predicted was likely to happen soon.

In Washington, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said he and others in the state's congressional delegation had met with administration officials, adding they were planning to work together "to establish some principles that we ought to incorporate in a law that will permit us to pay damages to the New Mexicans and other institutions that have been damaged by this fire."

But Domenici was also critical of what he called "this negligence" that led to the destruction, adding "the people of New Mexico and this country deserve to be very, very upset and to demand a much better performance and to insist that we find a way to recompense the people in that area."

So far, the Cerro Grande Fire, as it is now known, has claimed 405 housing units and closed many businesses, most of them in the Los Alamos area, which is about 45 miles from Santa Fe, the state capital. Early estimates put the aggregate loss at more than $1-billion.

(Text accompanying illustrations not provided electronically, please see microfilm.)