- Los Alamos National Laboratory warned Bandelier National
Monument not to start the prescribed burn that ultimately escaped monument
property and destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos before burning thousands
of acres of lab property, the lab's fire-management officer said Wednesday.
- In addition to the lab's warning, the fire dispatcher
for the Santa Fe National Forest has said he also warned Bandelier not
to light the fire.
- Despite the warnings, a Bandelier crew on the evening
of May 4 ignited a fire that National Park Service officials intended to
burn about 1,000 acres. By the afternoon of May 5, however, the fire had
escaped and quickly burned toward Los Alamos, where it destroyed hundreds
of homes on May 10.
- Officials with the General Accounting Office, the investigative
arm of Congress, are in New Mexico this week compiling information about
Bandelier's decision to light the fire. The GAO is expected to report preliminary
findings to Congress in early June.
- An interagency team, including representatives from the
National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, last week released a
preliminary report that blames Bandelier officials for the fire. Bandelier's
plan for a controlled burn seriously underestimated the complexity of conditions,
the report concluded.
- Gene Darling, the lab's fire-management officer and team
leader for emergency management, said Wednesday that he went to Bandelier
and met with two employees there on May 4. He said the two were members
of Bandelier's prescribed-burn team but declined to name them.
- Darling said he had gone to Bandelier to survey the smoldering
remains of an earlier controlled burn that Bandelier had conducted near
the entrance to the monument.
- Before the meeting, Bandelier had alerted the lab that
it intended to start the prescribed burn later that day near the mountain
called Cerro Grande.
- Darling said he argued against it, telling the two Bandelier
officials that the lab had revised its fire-danger rating from very high
to extreme that day.
- "I said, 'You know I'd really prefer you didn't
do this,' " Darling said he told the Bandelier officials. " 'We
hit extreme today. And I really prefer they not do this.' "
- Darling has been team leader for emergency management
at the lab for about six years and has served as fire-management officer
for the past two years. He said federal land-management agencies in the
area inform each other beforehand of planned controlled burns, but don't
need each other's permission to start them.
- "It's the first time that I've ever said that, 'I
wish you wouldn't do it,' " Darling said of his warning to the Bandelier
officials. "Before, I've asked for explanations, and I've gotten them."
- Darling said he told the Bandelier officials he spoke
with on May 4 that a wildfire in the Frijoles Canyon area of Bandelier
has been the lab's predicted "worst-case scenario" since the
Dome Fire of 1996.
- "It's the exact scenario we've been predicting ever
since the Dome fire; fire coming out of that mountain," Darling said.
- After hearing Darling's warnings, he said the two Bandelier
officials told him that they would "pass it on" to higher-ups
at the monument.
- On May 8, before the fire reached Los Alamos, Bandelier
Supt. Roy Weaver told reporters that he took responsibility for the decision
to start the fire. He said he had thought conditions were perfect and said
that an earlier attempt at a controlled burn when things weren't so dry
hadn't burned well enough.
- Weaver has since been placed on administrative leave.
Attempts to reach acting Bandelier Superintendent Alan Cox were unsuccessful
- John Romero, fire dispatcher on the Santa Fe National
Forest, last week said he had warned Bandelier "burn boss" Mike
Powell beforehand not to light the fire. Romero said he pointed out that
a fire already was burning out of control north of Los Alamos.
- "I mentioned that I had a concern that we were sending
mixed messages to the public," Romero said Friday of his warnings
to Powell. "That we're aggressively fighting fire on one end of Los
Alamos and they're igniting fire on the other end. I said that the conditions
out there are not conducive. We're actually putting out fires because we
have dry conditions, and we're taking aggressive suppression action on
- On Wednesday, Romero said he had talked with Darling
after the controlled burn escaped to seek permission to land helicopters
on lab property for the firefighting effort.
- "During the discussion, (Darling) told me that he
had talked to them (Bandelier) and asked them not to burn, and I said I
had told them the same thing," Romero said.
- "We kind of said what we felt, and they still proceeded
to do what they were going to do," Romero said of Bandelier.
- Both Romero and Darling emphasized their need to continue
to work with Bandelier officials in the future.
- "We have to keep a working relationship," Darling
said. "And what's past is past on a worker level, and I mean that
- The Cerro Grande fire, as the blaze became known, was
pronounced contained at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and officials are predicting
it will be completely snuffed out this week. It has burned about 48,000
acres, including sensitive lands on Santa Clara Pueblo.
- The cost to fight the fire exceeds $10 million. The ultimate
cost of damage associated with the fire might exceed $1 billion.
- More than 600 firefighters, including support staff,
still were involved in fighting the blaze Wednesday. About 1,400 firefighters
were working the fire at its peak last week.
- Forest Service officials fear the fire, the largest and
most destructive in New Mexico history, could flare up again if lightning
accompanies thunderstorms forecast for the Los Alamos area this week.
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