Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fire Report Cites Park Service for a 'Landslide' of Mistakes

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Fire Report Cites Park Service for a 'Landslide' of Mistakes

Article excerpt

AUSTIN, Texas -- Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said yesterday that National Park Service personnel in New Mexico committed a "landslide" of mistakes, including poor planning and lax oversight, in managing a "prescribed" forest fire that whipped out of control, decimating the city of Los Alamos.

The still-raging fire, ignited May 4, has burned about 50,000 acres of forest and residential land.

As an estimated 1,200 firefighters continued to battle the massive blaze in the woodlands around Los Alamos, Babbitt released the results of a preliminary investigation of the fire, which cites an array of missteps by personnel involved in planning and supervising what was to have been a controlled fire at Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos.

The fire was started to burn away dried timber and brush in a 1,000-acre section of the national park, a routine practice meant to reinvigorate the environment and lessen the chance of future wildfires. But planners miscalculated the complexity of the project, and managers approved the plan without scrutinizing it carefully, causing "a cascading series of events" that ended in catastrophe, Babbitt said.

Los Alamos's 11,000 residents were forced to evacuate the city May 10, when the fire reached its most intense level, but most of those evacuees have returned.

The blaze destroyed more than 200 homes and apartment buildings in the city and damaged parts of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the government's primary nuclear research facility.

Last week, as flames were consuming Los Alamos, the National Weather Service said it warned officials at Bandelier of unsuitable atmospheric conditions well before the prescribed fire was set. The report released yesterday also noted that atmospheric conditions indicated a "potential for large fire growth." But the report said those conditions did not contribute to the spread of the fire.

After the blaze was set, the report said, "there were a number of critical deviations from the prescription, actions, and procedures set forth in the prescribed fire plan, as well as standard fire practices. …

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