Los Alamos Lab Warned
Bandelier It Shouldn't
Begin Fire
By Ben Neary - The New Mexican
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 Wednesday.
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 these fires."
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 sincerely."
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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