New Mexico’s Fire: What Went Wrong?

May 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: We begin our update on the New Mexico fires with this report from Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: The admission by the National Park Service that it made critical mistakes in dealing with the devastating fire in New Mexico came two weeks after the agency deliberately set the blaze in the Bandelier National Monument. The report issued today listed numerous ways federal officials failed all along the way.

DICK BAHR, National Park Service: Federal personnel failed to properly plan and implement the prescribed fire. With the initial error that occurred in evaluating the complexity of the situation that they were planning for, the person who was tasked to write the plan had never experienced anything of this magnitude or this complexity. In addition, once that plan was written, we failed to follow the plan. There was a sequence of events that we were to conduct this prescribed fire under. That did not occur. We failed to provide substantive review of the prescribed fire plan before it was approved. What happened here is there was nobody looking over it from an objective eye that didn’t have direct involvement in it. They didn’t adequately analyze all of the factors that were going to ultimately become involved to make this thing happen. Were resources going to be there? How long were they going to take? What happens if it goes outside of the burn unit?

JOE STUTLER, US Forest Service: The weather forecasts given to the people on the fire, prescribed fire, the wild-land fire, failed to predict the three- to five-day forecast for the period of May 7 – 9. Remember that May 7 was the day that the winds were going to happen. A forecast was issued from the National Weather Service to the National Park Service but the piece about the wind was missing. It wasn’t that it wasn’t forecast. It was missing. It was not included. So the people on the fire with inadequate resources did not know that this wind event was coming.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Cerro Grande fire began as a controlled burn designed to limit the power of future wildfires by burning away brush from uninhabited rocky areas. But low humidity and sustained high winds of up to 60 miles-per-hour fed the flames and spread the fire over more than 47,000 acres. Today, about 60% of the fire is contained. More than 1,000 firefighters — some from as far away as Montana and Oregon — continue to battle the blaze which has cost more than $6 million to fight and caused a billion dollars in damages.

FIREFIGHTER: Your wind starts coming up and it’s hard to keep a handle on it. Stuff starts popping up everywhere. You don’t have enough people to go around.

KWAME HOLMAN: 12 New Mexico counties have been declared federal disaster areas — a classification that paves the way for federal aid. Hardest hit was the town of Los Alamos, home to the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, which conducts nuclear weapons research. Officials at the lab have said the wildfire never threatened nuclear and other weapons material stored in underground bunkers and fortified buildings. The lab’s major facilities also emerged unscathed, but a complex of historic buildings where scientists assembled the first atomic bomb was destroyed, as were some temporary trailers. Overall, 25,000 people were evacuated in Los Alamos and neighboring communities. More than 200 homes were destroyed; many more damaged. About 400 families are homeless.

JUDY OBSAHL, Fire Victim: It’s all gone. It’s not just the house, it’s the beauty of this whole place. It’s the beauty of those mountains that we moved here for, that we hiked in every day.

KWAME HOLMAN: Earlier this week, some Los Alamos residents were escorted back to view the charred remains of their homes. The Park Service superintendent who ordered the controlled burn has been placed on paid leave, and the US Forest Service has put off any further burns for at least a month. Meanwhile, residents of the state — which just suffered the driest winter on record — are prohibited from starting any outdoor fires. The Cerro Grande fire could continue to burn until heavy summer rains fall.

What were the mistakes?

MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth Farnsworth takes it from there.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And joining us now from Santa Fe are Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Secretary, let’s go through some of the mistakes that were laid out in the report today in a little more detail. Government officials failed to utilize the correct National Park Service complexity analysis process. What does that mean specifically? Who, what happened, and what was the chief consequence of it?

BRUCE BABBITT, Secretary of the Interior: Elizabeth, that was the beginning, because the preparation of the prescribed burn plan sets out all of the factors that need to be considered, and it results in a determination of level of complexity, which in turn drives the amount of resources, the number of technical people, whether or not this is a low-risk incident or a higher risk incident, which you have to mobilize a lot more backup, a lot more resources. The calculation was badly done. It was a big mistake. It’s kind of like the first rock rolling down the hill, and then it starts to set off other rocks and a chain of consequences out there on the landscape because there aren’t adequate resources, or there’s not been adequate analysis. Pretty soon the firefighters are behind the curve of managing the fire, and that’s the importance of it.

Why were mistakes made?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you know why it happened? Why was the mistake made?

BRUCE BABBITT: The mistake was made for two reasons. First of all, the people, the technicians in charge of preparing the plan were not adequately experienced. I think maybe the more important problem is that the supervisory people responsible for signing off of that plan, essentially rubber stamped it rather than putting in some really rigorous analysis.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wanted to ask you about that, too. Why did that happen? One conclusion is that officials failed to provide substantive review of the plan. Everybody who looked at it was involved — why? How did that breakdown a curve?

BRUCE BABBITT: Well, that’s a problem that crops up again and again and again in all organizations. There’s a tendency for managers and supervisors, the higher you go up, the less involvement there is because people have lots of other duties, and there’s an unfortunate tendency to say, “I got to, you know, empty out the trash cans, or go out and give a talk to the Kiwanis Club. The technicians are taking care of it and I rubber stamp it.” That’s a major failing here, and it’s one that we are going to devote a lot of time and attention to remedying. It is a structural problem, but it’s been highlighted by this, and it’s going to need a lot of attention to change it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And just so I understand the specifics of it, the burn boss, I gather, the burn boss is the person on the scene who’s in charge of the burn, hadn’t seen anything this complex, did not have the adequate responsibility, right — or the adequate experience?

BRUCE BABBITT: Well, he had more responsibility than was justified by his experience level. And, see, that mistake flowed out of the burn plan, because the burn plan said low complexity. He was qualified for a small, uncomplicated, prescribed fire. If the burn plan had been correctly done and reviewed, that burn boss would not have been in charge, because he simply did not have the experience level to handle a fire of this complexity. So that’s another rock rolling down the hillside of causation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we just heard in the setup piece, that the wind piece, the piece about the wind, I think he put it, was missing in the weather report. Do you know why?

BRUCE BABBITT: We have not checked into that. Now, let me just say this: That was an oversight on the part of the Weather Service down in Albuquerque, but it’s also an oversight on the part of the burn boss and his crew, because if you get a weather report that does not have the advance prediction, three- to five-day weather piece in it, you know, it’s not enough to just say, “Well, they didn’t give it to us.” You know, you’ve got to get back and say, “We’re not moving ahead with this until we get it.”

Liability and compensation

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor Johnson, what’s your reaction to this report? You used a very vivid metaphor in the press conference. You said, “People were hit by an 18-wheeler and the government was driving.”

GOV. GARY JOHNSON, (R) New Mexico: Well, that’s a fact, and let me point out, too, Elizabeth, nobody was seriously injured in all of this; miraculous. I want to applaud Secretary Babbitt. Clearly, the government is responsible, and he was here, and he has reiterated that numerous times. You know, if this were a… if this would have been a fire caused by lightning, if this would have been a hurricane or a tornado, there would be a different attitude about this fire — but you or I, you or I, we get hit by a car and it’s their fault? We want compensation and we want it now. Well, in this particular fire, this was the City of Los Alamos being hit by an 18-wheeler and the government was driving. Clearly responsibility has been owned up to. What we’re going to see here in the future, of course, is the compensation. We hope it comes out of Congress. I feel pretty confident that that’s going to happen. The Congress voted the other day to assume responsibility for this. They said the government is responsible, so a bad situation, but I just got to tell you, federal, state, local, county, everybody is making the best out of this situation. I am really proud of the way New Mexico has stepped up and dealt with this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Secretary Babbitt, for the record, you agree that the government is liable?

BRUCE BABBITT: Oh, absolutely. We’ve accepted responsibility. There’s no question about that now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what has to happen next? How quickly can compensation be delivered?

BRUCE BABBITT: There are two avenues of compensation. One is under existing law through the Justice Department. Our feeling at this point is that Congress could help us by passing an expedited statute, which would really speed it up. So the discussion between the administration and the Congress right now is can we get a congressional piece, which will expedite the settlement of claims? But the one thing I want to make clear, and I think Governor Johnson has, is there’s no question the people who suffered losses are going to have their losses compensated. The government started this chain of events, and a lot of innocent people have suffered some really major losses and they’re going to be compensated.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor Johnson? Yes?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Elizabeth, if I could just say these are really the big issues right now. The message to New Mexicans: show patience; show patience. The government has assumed responsibility. I’m going to say they’re going to come in, they’re going to make people whole, so people in New Mexico, whether individuals or businesses need to document… document what’s happened, show patience, and again, I think we’re going to get through this.

What next?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Secretary Babbitt, what happens to the people who were responsible for this?

BRUCE BABBITT: Well, the next step is for a statutory board of inquiry to do a peer review of this investigation. We’ve appointed that board, it’s a four-member board to look over and, you know, critique this investigation. That’ll take another week; that will run till May 26. Now when the oversight board, the board of review, comes back on May 26, the findings will then be sent into the administrative process, and that’s the point at which the appropriate accountability and disciplinary actions will be taken.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor Johnson, before I ask you about the status of the fire now, do you have any reaction to that?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Well, again, I just think the government has really stepped to the plate. I don’t sense… I don’t sense so much looking back by New Mexico, it’s looking forward, and certainly there’s going to be enough finger-pointing going on. We saw our way through this fire, the fire is in good status, it is not under control; Los Alamos is secure; the labs are secure. As far as getting people into Los Alamos, everybody back into Los Alamos, we’re still working on that, and there are all sorts of people working on that. So, again, the emergency, the disaster declaration, the government is in place to lend assistance. Looking forward, we have compensation that will come from the government back to patience with regard to that element. But I just want to applaud, again, I’ll say it over and over and over again, the response to this has been fantastic, the follow-up has been fantastic. And with regard to the finger- pointing going back, there’s going to be enough of that. And I’m sure that’ll all play itself out, too.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Secretary Babbitt and Governor Johnson, thank you very much for being with us.

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Well, thank you.