May 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more on the fire, we’re joined now from Los Alamos by New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson; and Buddy Young, the regional director of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is in Washington. He oversees the national park service, among other things.

A bad situation, but no casualties

Governor Johnson, please bring us up to date. What’s the status of the fire now?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON, (R) New Mexico: Well, really quickly I want to correct one thing. We’re talking about 100 homes that have been destroyed, but it is a bad situation. You can see how hard it’s blowing out here, probably in excess of 30 miles an hour. There is fire to the south of Los Alamos coming through the labs. And, again, we believe the labs are completely safe. There’s no danger to the public. But we’re still concerned about property in Los Alamos.

Nobody has been hurt throughout all of this. There was an evacuation yesterday of all of Los Alamos. Of course White Rock has now been evacuated. That’s also another concern is that the fire to the east has gotten to White Rock, another community of about 7,000-8,000, and we also have problems to the north in Espanola. It has gone that far. It has gone ten miles approximately to the north.

So, this is a bad situation. There are a lot of people here on the ground, probably a thousand, 600, 700, directly involved in firefighting. So a lot of people putting in a lot of really good effort to make, you know, better a bad situation.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor, what’s happening at the lab? Are there fires burning at the various sites and buildings of the labs now?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: I have to apologize. Because of the wind it’s a little bit difficult to hear you, but although fire is coming through the lab, again there is no safety danger to the public. When you’re talking about these materials that are being stored on the lab, in the lab, we’re talking about concrete structures, double-walls, steel doors, the safest place for this material during a fire is just where these materials are.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Governor, for the record, what are the materials? What nuclear materials are there?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Technically speaking maybe Buddy could address that. Again, I know that plutonium is dealt with certainly. Los Alamos does process nuclear material, plutonium. There is explosives, there are chemicals at the lab. Again, all these, though, materials are safe.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Governor, we heard Energy Secretary Richardson say that radiological tests were being conducted. Do you have the results of any of those tests?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Yes, we do. There is just again no, nothing is being released here at Los Alamos, and these monitoring devices are within the lab and they’re also on the perimeter of the lab. So, the monitoring shows nothing is being released.

18,000 evacuated

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Governor Johnson, don’t go away. Buddy Young, what do you see? You’ve been on a tour of the area. What do you see?

BUDDY YOUNG, Regional Director, FEMA: Well, there’s a tremendous amount of damage here in the city of Los Alamos. As the governor said, there’s somewhere around 100 houses, maybe 150, we don’t know exactly how many houses have been totally destroyed. Of course there’s a lot of land, a lot of forest, a lot of country around here that’s been burned. I heard something like 18,000 acres, and the fire is still spread over a very large area.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Young, how evacuees do you have right now?

BUDDY YOUNG: We believe there’s around 18,000.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve evacuated all of Espanola and what about the Pueblos, San Ildefonso Pueblo, is that being evacuated?

BUDDY YOUNG: I’m sorry I couldn’t understand.

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: No, those areas haven’t been evacuated. Espanola has not been evacuated. White Rock has and so has Los Alamos.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where is everybody going, Buddy Young? Where are they all being taken care of?

BUDDY YOUNG: Well, they have several shelters set up. There’s quite a few people in the shelters. Most of the people are finding a place to stay with friends and relatives.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you expect more to be evacuated? Can you tell from the way the fire is moving now whether you’ll have a lot more evacuees?

BUDDY YOUNG: I don’t know that I’m in a position to answer that question. The governor may know more about that than I do. I’m not real familiar with the country here. I’m from over in Texas, and I don’t know the area as well as the governor does. There’s a lot of small communities around Los Alamos and the Santa Fe area, but I don’t know where they’re all located so the governor may have to address that.


GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Well, you pointed those out. We’re talking about potentially Espanola, San Ildefonso and Santa Clara.

Negligence or an act of God?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Secretary Babbitt, before I get into what started this fire, and park officials at Bandelier National monument have been quite open about how they did a prescribed burn. Do you have anything to add to everything else that’s been said so far?

BRUCE BABBITT: Well, I think it’s important that we get the facts and get them out publicly and correctly. Now, I talked and authorized an investigative team this morning to come from the inter-agency fire center up in Boise. They’re on the ground now, and they’re busy gathering the facts to make certain that we know exactly what happened. That won’t take too long, maybe a week or two. Then I will appoint an independent investigative board to review the findings and as a result of that I think the public is entitled to an explanation. I think there are three possibilities here. One is somebody made a mistake by not following the guidelines. The second possibility is….

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just give us briefly those guidelines and describe what a “prescribed burn” and what happened at Bandelier. Just briefly what’s known.

BRUCE BABBITT: Okay. A prescribed burn consists of going out when the weather conditions are right and putting the fire on the land to burn off the excess fuel and the brush and the undergrowth so that there won’t be an even worse fire sometime down the road when conditions are even worse. We burned two to three million acres of land every year in the West. That’s an area about the size of Rhode Island. It lessens the fire danger.

We’ve been doing it for years and it’s an important thing because it’s the only way you can keep the forest healthy and keep the fire danger now. Now, these problems do arise — not frequently but this is one and it’s a bad one. Now, the question is ascertaining whether somebody made a mistake, whether we need to revise the guidelines and prescriptions. They’re tremendously detailed.

There’s a very scientific matrix that you have to go through in terms of the amount of moisture out there in the forest, the fire indices, how many tons of fuel per acre, what the weather forecasts are like, how much precipitation there’s been during the preceding winter – it’s a very scientific process. But it’s either human error — we need some adjustment to the guidelines — or it’s possible that it’s an act of God, that it’s something that could not have been anticipated. I think it’s very important to get all the facts out and withhold judgment until we’ve got those facts out and lay them out to the public and say what it is we’re going to do about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor Johnson, do you have anything to add about this prescribed fire that was a burn in Bandelier National Monument a week ago, which got out of control?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: I share in everybody’s concern about this. That is that of course this was a controlled burn that has gone awry, and obviously something went wrong. Maybe a lot of things went wrong. And I’ll just echo everybody’s concern here. What went wrong, I know there will be an investigation, yes. Let’s reserve judgment. But let’s find out exactly what happened. Certainly we don’t want this to ever happen again. Let’s find out what happened.

BRUCE BABBITT: Elizabeth, I would add only one thing to that.


BRUCE BABBITT: We are making plans to suspend prescribed fire, particularly in the Southwest. I want the governor to hear that. I’ll be in New Mexico tomorrow. I’ll be meeting with Dan Glickman, the Secretary of the Agriculture, and we will prepare an announcement defining the terms and conditions of a… of implementing a suspension of any further prescribed fire activity. I say that in response to the governor’s concerns. I think it’s a fair concern, and I think we need to do that until we have got the facts out and understood and acted upon in this particular case.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Governor, were you able to hear Secretary Babbitt?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: You know, you completely cut out. I’m going to assuming agree with you….

BRUCE BABBITT: George, you can’t.

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Again, you’re in and out.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Can you hear me now? He said he’s going to announce a cessation of prescribed burns in the southwest when he arrives in New Mexico tomorrow. Okay. (Wind blowing) Governor, can you hear me now and Buddy Young, can you hear me?

BUDDY YOUNG: Occasionally.

Concerns about radioactive material

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. I want to ask either one of you– I’m speaking loudly. I hope you can hear me– back to some questions about the lab. There are places like Bayou Canyon where there were tests recently and mild strontium showed up that was not a worry but if it burns it could be a worry. And I have been talking to people in Santa Fe about smoke reaching them eventually. Can you tell us what happens if some of those areas where there are remnants of radioactive material, if they burn?

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: I think that clearly it’s been established that there isn’t that danger that’s present. And, again, I’ve heard a number of specific concerns, specific areas. I have asked the lab, the lab has addressed those concerns (wind blowing) I’m pretty confident that, again, that is not going to be the case. Now, again, there are all sorts of allegations as to what’s been stored where, what’s been buried where. Without specifics, you know, we really can’t address that on the scene.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Buddy Young, are you concerned about that? Do you have plans? For example, there’s toxic waste too being cleaned up at the lab. Are you concerned about that?

BUDDY YOUNG: Well, I’m sorry, go ahead, governor.

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: Again, as governor, I am confident that there is no safety danger here to the public. Again, these materials are stored properly. There is, again, a lot of conjecture over what has happened in the past. Those specific areas that I’ve had question over I’ve addressed to the lab. They’ve adequately answered my concerns.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Buddy young, anything to add?

BUDDY YOUNG: Well, I might add that the EPA is bringing in some additional testing equipment to set around in other areas to make sure that if anything is detected we’ll be aware of it and can deal with it at that time.

GOV. GARY JOHNSON: And I think that’s a great idea. I mean, again just assure the public of what is, in fact, happening. That’s great. Buddy, we appreciate you doing that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Secretary Babbitt, any final word here?

BRUCE BABBITT: This really is a tragedy for the people involved. We’re going to do everything we can to make certain that we have provided for these folks, that we make certain we can get a level of restitution, get them back into a reasonable residential situation. What we’ve got to do now is get this fire out, get the resources in, make certain that there are no casualties and then get back, figure out what went wrong, correct it and in the meantime lay out some regulations to suspend prescribed burning in the Southwest at least until we can make some preliminary determinations of what went wrong.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Thank you three very much.