Los Alamos burn plan carried warning, 17 May 2000

Los Alamos burn plan carried warning

by ENN (Environmental News Network), 17 May 2000


According to its own plan, the National Park Service believed the Los Alamos fire would be contained in rocky terrain, but conceded that escaping flames were”somewhat likely” and smoke might lead to “political problems” affecting future burns.

The 250-page plan also warns Park Service officials about controlled burns: “You have not lost one in a long time and are starting to feel a little smug.”

The final version of the plan was filed April 19 and released Tuesday by spokeswoman for a team of investigators looking into the fire that has devastated Los Alamos and the surrounding county. It was unclear who filed the application and who approved it because all names had been blacked out. The spokeswoman, Joan Anzelmo, declined to comment.

It also was unclear whether the Park Service complied with the application’s conditions; the investigators are expected to release preliminary findings Thursday.

The fire was set by the Park Service at Bandelier National Monument on May 4 to diminish the chances of a catastrophic wildfire and clear away old plant growth to make room for new growth. The goal was to improve the health of ecosystems weakened by a century of human fire-prevention efforts.

The fire was planned for 968 acres, and Park Service officials rated the consequences of failure as “moderate,” saying it would primarily threaten “timber and private land values,” not buildings.

Instead, the wind-driven fire overran the burn area and roared into the nearby town of Los Alamos, destroying more than 200 homes and threatening the nation’s premier nuclear weapons research laboratory.

It had burned across more than 46,000 acres by early today and was still only 35 percent contained.

Some lawmakers have called for a re-examination of the nation’s controlled burn policies. The practice has been put primarily on hold in 11 Western states until at least June 11.

National Park Superintendent Roy Weaver, who took responsibility for igniting the blaze, has been placed on paid leave and declined requests to be interviewed. Calls for comment made Tuesday to local parks officials were referred to Washington, where they were not immediately returned.

The plan noted that “smoke impacts to sensitive areas could produce political problems that may impact future prescribed fire operations.”

It also said dead wood in the burn area was to be tested for moisture content for at least three weeks before the fire was set and weather conditions were to be monitored hourly afterward. Smaller test fires were to be set before the big one.

For the burn to take place, the plan said temperatures were to be between 40 and 90 degrees, with relative humidity of 15 percent to 20 percent and wind speeds of no more than 8 mph.

A National Weather Service report sent to the Park Service on the day the fire began predicted temperatures of 68 to 72 degrees and a humidity of 14 percent to 18 percent.

But it also forecast winds of 5 mph to 10 mph at lower elevations and 10 mph at the ridge tops, with winds increasing to 10 mph to 15 mph and gusts reaching 20 mph at the ridge tops the next day.

It also predicted humidity would fall overnight, creating the worst possible wildfire conditions: dry and unstable air.

The application’s contingency plan states that if the fire was to get out of control, air tankers should be made available to fight it within two hours. Two 20-person ground crews and helicopters equipped with buckets were to be available within four hours, with lookouts watching for spot fires started by wind-driven embers.

The burn was intended to reduce the so-called “fuel load” in the area by as much as 80 percent and reduce the chance of future wildfires. Officials have said a similar 1993 burn only eliminated 16 percent of the dead trees and brush it was supposed to destroy.

Naturally occurring fires were common throughout the area before 1900, when fire suppression became a major mission as the population of northern New Mexico began to increase.

The long-range Wildland Fire Management Plan for Bandelier states that a lack of wildfire is dramatically changing the park’s ecosystem.

“This condition sharply raises the potential for destructive, difficult to control crown fire(s),” it said.


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