This year's disastrous Los Alamos, New Mexico, fire occurred because the National Park Service pursued a series of irresponsible policies. The federal government had previously allowed preservation mentality to create an excess of hazardous fuel buildup, after conversion of National Forest land to the Bandelier National Monument. Fuel buildups in a National Monument cannot be continuously controlled with grazing or forestry; instead, controlled "Wildland Fire Management" is used.
The National Park Service started a controlled burn known as the Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire when weather conditions creating a very severe fire hazard were already foreseen. The agency failed to plan in advance for the complexity of the prescribed fire and to allow with adequate personnel and equipment for fire suppression. The National Park Service's official investigation report bears out these important mistakes.
One terse statement reads, "Contingency resources were not ordered and placed on standby prior to implementation of the prescribed fire."(1) One of the conclusions of the report is that, "...it is possible that if sufficient contingency resources had been at the burn site on May 5, these resources may have been able to contain the 'slop over' without the need to convert the prescribed burn to a wildfire. If that had occurred the prescribed fire would have progressed to the forest fuels where it is probable that the fire would have slowed or stopped completely. Thus, the fuels would not have been preheated and dried out and no ignition source would have existed to initiate the crown fire that resulted on May 7."(2)
Boundaries were not protected. The official report states, "There was no hand line along the boundary of adjacent landowner (Baca Ranch)." The report summarizes "Threats to the Boundary" with the three observations: "State of New Mexico and U. S. Forest Service did not have an agreement with Bandelier to allow prescribed fire on those properties"; "High probability of spot fires given that the prescription calls for flame lengths at 9 feet with consumption and torching of overstory trees"; and "Boundaries had continuous fuels requiring line construction to keep fire from crossing." (No line construction had been done.) Further on in the summary, the report states: "Fire spotting objective under one quarter mile is invalid due to lack of agreements with adjacent landowners."(3)
The National Park Service continued to fail to respond to the emergency when it became critical. Among the amazing admissions in the Park Service report were that, "No resources were identified to relieve current personnel assigned to the fire and the plan was unclear as to where the fire would be stopped"; "Costs were an issue...Cost preparation for the unit had not been completed"; and that "The complexity of the fire exceeded the management capability of the organization."(4)
The Cerro Grande fire burned 80 square miles in northern New Mexico including parts of adjacent Santa Fe National Forest and private ranch land, destroyed 405 housing units houses in Los Alamos and the area,(5) and caused over $300 million damage to the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.(6)
A federal assessment said that 95 percent of two spotted owl territories in the Santa Fe National Forest will be lost because of the fire and drought conditions.(7)
Richard Frost of New Mexico State University testified in June before the U.S. House of Representatives:
"The total acreage to date for all wildfires on government lands in New Mexico this year is approximately 320,118 acres (or 500 square miles), and the season is just starting. This is not unique to New Mexico. The national assessment on catastrophic wildfire estimates as many as 39 million acres (or 60,938 square miles) of national forests in the interior remain at risk of uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfire."(8)
Mr. Frost pointed out that the fear that non-profit environmental groups may bring lawsuits on behalf of "endangered" species has compelled the Forest Service policy to halt logging and caused the buildup of fuel that imperils forests with catastrophic fires.
(1) National Park Service, Bandelier National MonumentCerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report, May 18, 2000, downloaded 6/06/2000 5:55 p.m., "Findings and Recommendations," page 5 of 8
(2) Ibid., "Conclusion," page 1 of 2.
(3) Ibid., "Findings and Recommendations," pages 2 and 3 of 8
(4) Ibid., "Findings and Recommendations," page 2 of 8
(5) Janofsky, Michael, "Citing Poor Plan, U. S. Takes Blame in Los Alamos Fire," New York Times, May 19, 2000, p. A-1, and National Park Service investigation report.
(6) Washington Post, "Los Alamos lab fire damage exceeds $300 million," Las Cruces Sun-News, June 10, 2000, p. A-1
(7) Associated Press, "Cerro Grande fire destroys critical habitat for owl, fish," Las Cruces Sun-News, June 24, 2000, p. A-5.
(8) Frost, Richard, "Testimony provided on New Mexico's Forest Fire Situation for the U.S. House of Representatives National Resources Committee," June 3, 2000, p.2.