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State and Federal Officials Hold News Briefing on Los Alamos Wildfires

Aired May 11, 2000 - 1:37 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now live to Los Alamos where there is a news conference just beginning. This is the governor speaking, then we will hear from federal officials about this out of control fire in Los Alamos.


GOV. GARY JOHNSON, NEW MEXICO: It jumped all the manpower in the world couldn't have prevented that fire from having spotted one mile, of course in two different places. So that needs to be stressed.

There has been a great job that has been done here, but right today, unlike yesterday at 12:00, where this thing looked to be contained, today the situation is completely different. We do have a terrible situation on our hands, a lot of people are working really hard on making this terrible situation better. We are going to comment a lot about the fact that there is no danger from the lab and everything that goes with that.

But with that, I would like to turn it over to James Lee Witt.

JAMES LEE WITT, FEMA DIRECTOR: Good afternoon. I am James Lee Witt, director of FEMA.

And President Clinton signed an emergency declaration yesterday after Governor Johnson asked for it, Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman, Congresswoman Wilson -- Congresswoman Wilson and Congressman Udall, and all of us were talking yesterday with the Forest Service, Department of Energy, everyone that our primary concern right now is supporting the governor and supporting whatever resources they need to make sure that they have them here available to fight the fire, but also to help take care of the people that have been evacuated, and whatever we have to do we will do that.

The other thing we will be assessing with the governor and the state is to looking at what has burnt, was insured, what was not. If there is businesses, if there is homes, then we will assess that. And if we have to expand the declaration to a full federal declaration, then we will advise the president about that, and look and see what we have to do to help people get the people back and the community back on its feet. We will provide whatever resources the governor needs and U.S. Forest Service and everyone to fight this fire or help these people. BILL RICHARDSON, SECRETARY OF ENERGY: I am Bill Richardson, secretary of energy. Los Alamos is a Department of Energy facility.

I want to start out by saying that I spoke to Secretary Glickman of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service today, and Secretary Babbitt of Interior. Both have pledged their full help and support. Secretary Glickman has sent the head of the Forest Service, Mike Dombeck, who is here with us. He has pledged the use of 700 firefighters, if necessary, to deal with this blaze. I understand that Secretary Babbitt this morning has announced several steps, including an investigation as to how this got started.

I would also like to stress that all our nuclear materials are safe. We believe that our extensive nuclear materials throughout the complex are safe. They're located in many fire-resistant buildings. We believe that the public should not be concerned about that. We have an excellent security force.

We also are, at this time, conducting some radiological tests. We do not believe there's been any radiological releases, but at this moment...


... there are no radiological leakages. There is a problem with some of the vegetation. There's been ecological damage.

Let me just say to all the Los Alamos employees: Your jobs are safe, the lab is going to remain strong, we will recover. This is going to be a very difficult period. Director Witt has pledged his support for any housing or any other assistance that our 8,000 employees might need. This has been a tragedy for this community, but this community helped us win the Cold War and we're going to stand very much behind them.

I'd like to also emphasize that we have all the necessary personnel and equipment to handle the situation. We have on standby mode a security force 90 miles away should there be any need. We have more than adequate security here at the complex right now. We believe the situation is under control. This -- today is a bad day because of the wind, and we are ensuring that all steps are taken to protect all the facilities here.

I'd like to introduce now the senior senator from New Mexico who chairs the Appropriations Committee for the Department of Energy and who has been a champion for the labs and energy in the country, Senator Domenici.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI (R), NEW MEXICO: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, Senator Bingaman. It's good to be with you.

Thank you James Lee Witt and the president for all you've done.

And, Governor, you've done an outstanding job and we're most appreciative. I would first like to say -- just break my remarks into two parts, briefly. Somebody made a mistake and obviously we have to find out who. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Senator Bingaman is the ranking member on -- and I'm on that committee -- has already asked the General Accounting Office to begin an investigation as to how this started and is there -- did somebody do something that should have -- should not have been done considering the dry conditions of the drought and the winds, etc.

Enough about that.

Let me say, I've been coming to Los Alamos for 26 years. They are among the finest constituents in the state of New Mexico. I know many, hundreds of them personally, and this is a very, very sad day for me. I usually come and we're enthusiastic about the great science that's taking place here and the great breakthroughs that are occurring, because more of our brains are here in this community than in any similar spot on the globe. And I want to say to all of them, we're going to all work to bring this town back to where it was. We're not going to rest until it's the laboratory that it was with all of the facilities that are necessary.

And last, I want to say there's a lot of rumors around, but if you all will stay here once the politicians have finished their comments, there are some technical people who want to explain to you the monitoring that's going on. There is no chance that there is any radioactivity in the air. The monitors would tell us that immediately. There's a means of taking photographs, and we have one of those photographs here that tells you where the heat is, where the fire is, and, yes, would discern for everyone whether or no there's anything in the ambient air that is dangerous, other than a fire.

And I believe it's hard under these circumstance for you all to report that because somebody's going to be telling you to the contrary. But we have no reason to be anything but totally honest with the American people and with New Mexicans. And there is nothing dangerous up here except the forest fire.

And then there's another rumor that maybe we have all these people ready to take away weapons from here. The safest place in the world for what we do at Los Alamos is right here, right now with a fire going on. We don't have anything to move, we're not moving anything from here. There's nothing to move. So I would hope that you would not just take that from a senator who is an advocate for this facility, but I hope you'll listen to some experts who will assure you that that's the case.

RICHARDSON: Senator Bingaman, the junior senator from New Mexico, a member of the Energy Committee.

SEN. JEFF BINGAMAN (D), NEW MEXICO: Yes, I'll just -- yes, let me just repeat two or three points. One is the one Pete just made. This is not an issue about national security or release of radiation. That is not occurring. The lab is going to survive this in good shape. And to the extent there is damage, that will be quickly remedied. This is really a tragedy for this community and all the people who are being displaced, and that is the immediate -- in addition to, of course, controlling and extinguishing the fire, dealing with that human tragedy is what we are concentrating on. We hope to figure out the extant of the damage, the extent of the property damage. We will do all we can at the federal level to make these people whole and to see to it that the rebuilding is done quickly.

Thank you.

RICHARDSON: Any questions? Jamie (ph), come in.

Any questions?

QUESTION: Mr. Richardson?


QUESTION: We've heard reports that there's a group of fire officials guarding an area around high explosives setting back-burns. Is there any truth to that.

RICHARDSON: No, no, we have contingency plans. Security is very strong here. I mentioned that we have on standby mode members of our federal protection force that are in the Albuquerque area that are ready to assist should there be a problem.

QUESTION: But there's no high explosives? Is there any danger at all?


QUESTION: Secretary Richardson, we, Channel One News...

JOHN BROWN, LOS ALAMOS LABS: I want to answer that question, please. I'm John Brown, laboratory director. I think what might be referred to is that we store high explosives in concrete bunkers. The fire did burn through that area and we did just what we wanted to do: We left the high explosives in those bunkers. The fire blew straight through. It charred the area, did not harm anything in the bunkers. So everything's safe with respect to the high explosives.

QUESTION: Mr. Brown, could you comment about the equipment that's used to protect the plutonium, keep it at the right temperature. Is that equipment at all in danger?

BROWN: No it's not. The plutonium facility, first of all, was designed to withstand the crash of a 747 into it, and so the plutonium is inside in vaults and is secured, and it would be -- you'd have to be able to burn that whole concrete structure to the ground. The TA- 55 plutonium facility has a very light load of wood around and it and it's mostly grasses, so it would not be a serious fire concern for us. Its one of the areas that we cleared out in the past.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ... Senator, please comment -- there has been much made about how and why this fire began in the first place. What have you learned so far about why this proscribed burn was done under the conditions in which it was? And could you please comment on the wisdom of that?

DOMENICI: Well, you know, I already said a little bit about it. I think we all know that it was a controlled burn that was started by the United States Park Service in the national monument that is named Vandeleer National Monument. I am not sure at this point whether the Forest Service of the United States concurred, or they agreed or disagreed, but it's quite obvious that it was very risky. As you see, the result of that is what we are now talking about and the tremendous damage that's going to occur.

I believe somebody is responsible. And as just my ability to draw conclusions from facts, I would think that the person in charge of the Park Service here that authorized this is most responsible for this. But I think it ought to go through a process. Maybe the agencies have already done that. They've got to find out who said what to who and they might know more than I know. But I know we will know by next week in the committee of jurisdiction in the United States Senate why this fire started and whether it was a good thing to do or whether it was untoward and something that is the equivalent of a mistake. It looks to me like it's the latter.

QUESTION: Could someone speak about the concern that this state is so dry. We have Ruidoso, we have the creek fire, and there's been much said about the tinder-dry conditions given La Nina. Could someone speak about what could be done about preventing situations like this? Obviously you want to, perhaps, keep away from proscribed burns. But any additional measures?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the first thing to keep in mind is all fire is dangerous, and there's three components: heat, oxygen and fuel. And the thing we've really got to do, not only here in New Mexico, but all over the West is make sure that we apply the land management practices, to do the thinning to reduce the fuel load to avoid this kind of situation and to reduce the risk in the future.

We know a lot of this is going to burn. We don't exactly when it's going to burn, but we've got to apply the appropriate measures and have the right fuel loads there so we don't have disasters like this.


JOHNSON: If there is one message to take away from this for New Mexicans is that we do have this extreme drought, these conditions do exist. We're in a terrible situation with two fires. Once these fires are out, we want to make these the last. And I realize we don't just have two, we've got another three on top of that. But open burning: be careful, use common sense.


QUESTION: You're one of the only people who's had full access to all the areas. What can you tell the people who are watching about what they're going to find when they get back?

JOHNSON: Well, again, hopefully this doesn't get worse. Right now, there are approximately 100 homes that have burned down. Everything that can be done is being done, and yet, again, we may just be seeing the beginning of what is a real catastrophe.

QUESTION: Secretary Richardson, can you tell us how close the fire is to the plutonium storage facility, and also about the testing that you're doing today for radioactivity?

RICHARDSON: Well, on the testing that we're doing, its being done by Sandia. And we could also get additional testing assistance from EPA if we need it. Hopefully, there'll be some results today, but as has been mentioned, there are no radiological releases. We just want to be sure.

What was the second part?

QUESTION: How close is the fire to the plutonium facility?


BROWN: Could we add a comment to that? The laboratory has a system of air monitors around the laboratory site that we check all the time when we're in normal operations. And so those monitors are being checked continuously. We looked at them last night and this morning. There has been no indication of a radiological release off the site at all. In addition, as Secretary Richardson said, we have asked for some assistance from Sandia. They brought up their radiological assessment team. And we've added some of our own new types of detectors around the site to see if we can get even a better indicator. But, to date, we have seen no radiological release in this laboratory.

QUESTION: So, you said off the site: Does that mean there is one on the site?

BROWN: No -- well, the monitoring system is around the site, and so that's where we protect the public, is around the site. We don't see any in the site either, but the place the public wants to know is when it passes from the laboratory into the communities, and we have not seen that.


QUESTION: ... can we get a progress report please?

QUESTION: Can we can a report on the fire?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As -- there's a technical person here that, when we're done, will give you a lot of details, but I want to say that, as the governor said yesterday, things were fairly calm. Today, with winds predicted up to 60 miles an hour, there's really -- isn't anything ground crews can do. And even there's a challenge with aircraft. So we're sort of at the mercy of the weather right now, and the most important message for everyone is: Be safe with fire around your homes. It's -- people's safety is our number one concern.

QUESTION: Could you comment on what role the Forest Service did or did not play in this proscribed burn? Is it something that you all approved of it? Should the Park Service have gone ahead with it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That, I think, will come out of the investigation when that's complete.

RICHARDSON: On that plutonium question, let me answer it, because the fire came about 300 yards close to it. We don't anticipate it will be moving in that direction. So, regardless, it is able to withstand fires because it's in a fire-resistant building, it's in a very secure structure, so we're calm on that.

QUESTION: Initially, the lab was built out here because it was a rural area, and it's not a rural area as much anymore. Is there a concern over that? Are we thinking about, perhaps, moving the facilities to another place?

RICHARDSON: No, this lab is going to stay here. This lab is secure. It's one of the national treasures for our national security and for a lot of excellent science and environmental work. The lab is going to stay here. The human tragedy is what we have to deal with: families displaced, lab employees displaced. And this is where the FEMA director's pledge has been very, very welcome. Our first task is to contain the fire. Our nuclear materials are safe, but we have to deal with the human tragedy of 8,000 employees and their families, many of whom have been displaced. That's the immediate task.

QUESTION: Do you all have a dollar estimate on damage right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's way too early for dollar estimates now because the fire is still going. It's not under control yet. As the governor has said, there's 100 homes up burnt and it and a good possibility of more. So it'd be just guessing. So it'd be too early.

QUESTION: Any idea how long everybody's going to have to stay away?

QUESTION: Have you lost any buildings in the labs yet?

RICHARDSON: All lab buildings are secure. We anticipate -- we're monitoring this very carefully, but our lab buildings are secure.

QUESTION: Governor, we broadcast to 8 million students across the country, and initially we came out here as an environmental story on controlled burn and the environment. What is the lesson now that it's gotten so out of control?

JOHNSON: I think the lesson remains for all of us to learn. And, again, I think the senator elaborated pretty well: There needs to be an investigation. I think I share the concern that everybody shares. I mean, what has happened here that's allowed this to happen? And there will be a process take place, and I want the answers as much as everybody else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let these experts give an update on the fire.

JIM PAXSON, FIRE DEPARTMENT SPOKEMAN: Yesterday, this fire grew from about...

QUESTION: Can you state your name?

PAXSON: I will. We'll get the rotors out.

Can all the mikes hear me?


PAXSON: I'm Jim Paxson. I'm the lead information officer.

QUESTION: We can't hear you.

PAXSON: OK, we'll just wait.

QUESTION: Secretary Richardson, while we're waiting (UNINTELLIGIBLE) did you say (OFF-MIKE)?

RICHARDSON: Yes, but it went off into the grassy areas.

I think before the chief says something -- because I have to go -- let me just mention that Congressman Udall could not leave Washington today because he had a hearing on the Baca property, which is adjacent here. He's going to be on a plane very soon and get here as soon as possible -- Congressman Udall that represents this district. I just wanted to state that for the record.

ALLEN: State and federal officials talking in Los Alamos about this huge fire that is out of control, and attempting to quell rumors of any radiological leaks coming from the Los Alamos Nuclear Lab. Of that, they say they are doing radiological tests right now to determine if there's any leakage. They have no reason to believe there is so. And you heard from Bill Richardson, the energy secretary, who said he believes the lab and its dangerous contents are safe from this fire.

Pete Domenici, the senator from New Mexico, reiterating that point, saying there is no truth to rumors that there have been radiation leaks, and they are staying on top of that situation.

All that there is now is a "terrible situation." Those were the governor's words. Yesterday, they thought they had this huge fire contained. Right now, it is so dangerous that firefighters are not able to try and fight it: 100 homes gone, 400 damaged, 18,000 people evacuated. And also, said the senator, this the result of someone making a mistake.

As we've reported, the National Parks Service started this fire as a controlled burn, a proscribed burn. It said it did not receive a Weather Service forecast. The Weather Service said it faxed to the Park Service saying that the weather was not good for a controlled burn. There were extreme winds and no humidity. So, as you heard the officials say, there will be an investigation, some members of Congress calling for hearings into this.

We'll continue to follow developments for you and bring them to you as soon as we get them.



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