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Local, State and Federal Officials Hold News Conference on New Mexico Wildfires

Aired May 12, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: There are still efforts under way to fight those fires still out of control in New Mexico, but there is new hope today. And we hope to hear from New Mexico authorities shortly. Another news conference is scheduled. We will see what the efforts are our there today. So far, no injuries reported from those fires. That's the good news. The bad news is the numbers, almost 30,000 acres burned so far, 200 plus homes destroyed, 20,000 people forced to live somewhere else at least until Monday.

About 1,000 firefighters and National Guard troops are working around the clock and one officials says they might get a break from lighter winds today and tomorrow. In the meantime, three communities virtually are deserted and shrouded in smoke. And the Park Service superintendent who authorized what was supposed to be a controlled burn is on paid leave pending an investigation.

The damage in Los Alamos is hit and miss. Many neighborhoods are spared are still in tact, others are ravaged.

CNN's Tony Clark joins us now from a part of town where the fires came and went with a vengeance.

Tony, what's it like?

TONY CLARK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is unbelievable. In fact, I don't think my words can really describe. I will show you a little bit around here. This is an area called the North Community. It was built after World War II after this area was decided to be settled. This was an area of duplexes and quadoplexs (ph) that would sell for $150,000-$200,000.

The fire came through here around 9:00 local time yesterday, and you can see, it didn't leave much of anything. In fact, looking off to the side, you can see the smoke, it is still smoldering in a portion of this. And that's it's just -- my words can't describe it.

The news conference I believe is getting ready to start and we will go there.

WATERS: Right, that is what I was going to say. The governor of New Mexico now is speaking to reporters.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) GOV. GARY JOHNSON, NEW MEXICO: ... situation that was under control, and then quickly became out of control. So what we want to address now, though, is we want to address citizens' concerns. We want to have a daily briefing, and this is going to start today. But what you are going to see are daily briefings, I believe two a day, starting tomorrow you are going to see daily briefings because people have questions. And part of those questions, and something that we're going to establish, and this will be followed up immediately, as soon as possible, because we want to be able to start to stage people just to come back and get in their homes for an hour, if you will, before we can start staging people, getting back in Los Alamos.

And all of this, again, I just want to preface this. When we start talking about bringing people in. There is a real caution here because this fire is not over with, and nobody here is pretending that it is. But people are concerned, and we want to address people's concerns.

So with that, I am going to start out, like I say, with the county administer, Joe King. And I would like everybody here, again, to keep in mind that we're here to address Los Alamos citizens, we're here to address Los Alamos' needs, and the questions and the concerns that they would have, and how we coordinate all of that.

So with that, Joe King.


We are going to try to provide some information here we know our citizens are very interested in. And, for the media, we appreciate, it has been very difficult to get timely information on a regular basis. So we will be coordinating with the state to have a media information center with formal updates every morning and every afternoon. So we will notify everybody as to when that will be up and operational.

I would also like to say there have been very mixed signals about whether people can reenter their neighborhoods either in White Rock or the town site. I want to make absolutely clear, we still have those areas restricted. Citizens may not go into either White Rock or the town site because of the danger that still exists.

I want to say that we have gone through the town site where the structural damage has occurred to houses, and we've identified those houses that have burned. At the end of this meeting, we will provide the media and anybody else copies of lists, of addresses. We are going to maintain that list current on our county Web site. So we will give you an address for that.

We hope citizens that are temporarily relocated to communities around us can at least get access to the Web site and see that list.

We know that our local media are going to try to get that information out as quickly as possible. We understand the anxiety about knowing whether people's houses are destroyed or not. We are also, with the assistance of the state, going to be setting up and off-the-hill staging area. I'll let others go into that in more detail, but that is to provide residents who displace a location where they can go and get services and information they need as quickly as possible for the duration of this emergency.

The National Guard will be playing an important role to help our citizens get access back to their homes, at least for a short period, as quickly as potential. I will let others go into that.

Until we are absolutely certain that it is safe to reenter the neighborhoods on more than just an accompanied visit, basis, we are going to keep people out of their homes, and I know how inconvenient, and worrisome that is.

We want people who are now all over the place in temporary locations to anticipate that they will need to stay in that situation for a full week. We will open the areas back up as quickly as we can. Our police chief will go into a little more information on that. We are assuming it will much quicker than that in White Rock. But we want to make absolutely sure that there is no fire danger before reopening the communities.

I think I will let it go at that -- Diane.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The next speaker will be the chief of the Los Alamos Fire Department, and that is Chief Doug McDonald. And if the chief is not here, his representative please, I believe Steve Coburn is here.

Thank you, Steve.


Currently, I will give you an update on both sides of the fire, what we call Lanel (ph) in the community. As far as Lanel goes right now, there is still quite a bit of fire in some of the canyons that have moved in the last couple of days. There is fire actually in and around Lenal facilities, but there is not a threat. I want to make sure that you don't want to use that word threat, it just exists there. There is still a lot of fire within this area. There is a lot of fire within the Forest Service areas. There is still a little bit of fire within the communities. The fire department has all its resources committed to addressing these issues. We have many, many other agencies involved, fire departments from all over the state have provided structural firefighters, equipment, and all the assistance that they can provide.

Right now, we have one little fire behind one of the old junior high schools right now. We have Forest Service trucks in there assisting us dealing with that. It is not threatening any further houses.

We have engine companies patrolling every street 24 hours a day, and that will continue, I anticipate, for at least a week. We have other resources right now that are in, working with Lanel people, and other agencies trying to knock all the fires down within the Lanel area. We have got all the air support today that we need, which is extremely beneficial to that.

As far as today goes, it looks like the winds are going to cooperate with us today and tomorrow. We don't anticipate any winds that will impact us for a few more days. So we are going to take advantage of that.

We are going to commit resources to hot spotting, that type of thing, and that's what the crews are looking for right now. There were some fire yesterday, north of Ranchos De Taos (ph), and into the canyon, and that's been addressed. We feel real comfortable that that's no longer an issue at this point.

There is some, you know like I said, still spotting in those things, and we're going through and dealing with each spot fire that is reported, and each one we find, and we are extinguishing it.

So that's basically all that I have to report at this time.

QUESTION: Can state your name and your spelling?

COBURN: My name the Steve Coburn. My last name is spelled C-O- B-U-R-N. And I am the Los Alamos County fire marshal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Next we have Los Alamos Police Chief Rich Melton.

RICHARD MELTON, LOS ALAMOS POLICE CHIEF: As the county administrator mentioned earlier, we are getting ready to release a list of all of the homes that we have verified that have been burned. In order to facilitate this, we will have, after this meeting is over, within a few minutes so we can get the information down there at the Kowakee (ph) High School, we will have copies of just the list of the addresses so people can get immediate access to that. We will also have this on the Web site, as was previously mentioned, so that people can find out if their homes were, in fact, damaged. So for people that are looking to find that information out, we will get this stuff down to the Kowakee High School shortly after this meeting and make it available.


MELTON: The Web site address -- It will be on the handout that we will hand out.


MELTON: Well, I don't have it right now, but we will hand it out just as soon as we've got it, probably as soon as we are done here.

The other thing is is that we're working with the guard now, with the governor's help of getting this stuff mobilized, to allow people access in, Now, what we are going to do is we are going to have people individually escorted to their homes if they have to pick up some extra supplies. We don't know how long they are going to be -- that this is going to last. And because of that, we want to make sure that if they need to get to some items in their home, that they can.

But we have got to keep maintaining the integrity of the evacuation. So what we will do is actually have a guard person ride with a vehicle with the family or with an individual, come to their house, get their belongings, and then go back out. We've got quite a commitment of guard force to do this.

We are looking to have people meet here again. We will announce the time when we have this working and the location where people can meet. That is being facilitated right now. We don't have it. We would like to start it later on this afternoon, if we can, but certainly by in the morning we should have that set up. This is something that we're trying to do to help alleviate some of the problems that are being associated with people being away from their homes.

The -- as has been previously mentioned, that needs to continue to be emphasized is that until it is safe we just cannot allow people in. It's a major task to get people out of this community in any kind of a timely aspect. And to so that -- to allow people in before it's absolutely safe. And we're keying off of the fire people to make sure -- to make that determination.

So we'll answer more questions later. But we've got a lot of things that are working, we're trying to make sure that we can get information to people. We are also looking to set up an off-site, out-of-county area where people can go for information. We realize it is frustrating not knowing who to call and where to go, and especially when you can't come in to your own community. So that is also being worked on.


MELTON: Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a correction. Joe King, the Los Alamos county administer, has a correction for you.

KING: The location that we are going to set up for the information is the Ben Lou Hign High School (ph), which we may know as the Powaki (ph) High School. They are really two different, that is on 501 on the way down the hill.


KING: Ban Lon Hign Gym (ph), the gym that is right off 501. Thanks very much for that correction.

QUESTION: 501 or 502?

KING: 502, thank you for that correction. Down the hill. Right off the road. Also, I understand people are on pins and needles. The Web site, I will readout, it is on the handout that the media will have. It's www.lac.losalamos -- all one word -- And the information the list of the houses that we're distributing, those houses are totally destroyed. The fire is so intense that almost every single one of these houses is burned down to the foundation. There is nothing left of any of these houses.

QUESTION: How many houses are there?

KING: 191.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have an addition to the list. Now we are going to have the deputy state fire marshal, and that Mike Slusher, that is S-L-U-S-H-E-R.

MIKE SLUSHER, DEPUTY STATE FIRE MARSHAL: Real quickly, our role in this has been to support the Los Alamos Fire Department. What we've done is pulled resources throughout the state, throughout the state's fire service. We've got 31 fire departments represented here, 42 apparatus, and well over 100 folks. Our message is is that we will continue to do that whatever the fire department needs. We will make sure that they get that support and that their fire crews get relief, so that they are getting adequate rest also. Thank you.

QUESTION: Where are you from?

SLUSHER: State fire marshal's office.

QUESTION: Could you spell your last name again?

SLUSHER: Slusher, S-L-U-S-H-E-R.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Next we will have the fire information officer from the U.S. Forest Service, and that is Jim Paxon -- Jim.

JIM PAXON, FIRE INFORMATION OFFICER, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: We're working pretty hard at coordinating information, and it has been an extremely beneficial and successful effort. We will continue that.

When the county sets up an information office, we will have a Forest Service person in that office. We will continue our information -- primarily being with the wildfire.

I do need to let you know that there's a meeting going on down in Santa Fe. We are splitting this fire. It is going into what we call area command. And there will be two type-one teams on it.

The reason for that is this fire continues to grow. I think a lot of you know that two days ago it was 3700 acres, yesterday it was 18,000 acres. Last night, our infrared flight shows it is 28,800 acres. So it is growing at an alarming rate. Fuels are heavy. The complexity with the lab in the town just add to that.

So we'll have two type-one teams. I don't have all the details of that. We will continue to be in place. But we will split the fire. There is going to be a news conference at 2:00 p.m., and we're coordinating with some of the lab folks. Tentatively that news conference will be at the instant command post out at Technical Area 49. That is out 501 and Highway 4 on the way to Bandelier National Monument.

We are still going to have to maintain lab security. So we are working on the details for the escort in and out. But Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, the director of the Park Service Mr. Stanton, and the chief of the Forest Service, Mike Dombeck, will be at that news conference at 2:00. I think it will be a beneficial information for the media and for the public. And we invite you to that.

We will have details on how we are going to continue to work with Los Alamos County and the town and the lab, and some more logistical and strategical details on what we are going to do in attacking the fire.


PAXON: The location of the news conference is the Instant Command Post at Technical Area 49. The time is 2:00 p.m.


Next we'll have the regional coordinator for FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that is Buddy Young -- Buddy.


Like to give you just a little information about what FEMA's role is here, and what can be expected from us in the days to come. You know, the first few days of a disaster is just that, it's a disaster. We've been fighting fire here and trying to get that situation under control.

Our focus now is going to have to turn to the people that have been displaced from their homes, and how are we going to be able to take care of those people and deal with them. The president declared an emergency declaration a couple of days ago for this, which allows FEMA to become coordinating office for the federal government to bring federal resources that are needed to support state and local operations and the Forest Service operations, if they need any assistance.

Of course, the Forest Service has got the lead role in fighting this fire and making the decisions on how to do that, and what type of resources they need. And if we can help them, we will be glad to do that. But our main role now is to support the state and local government here to help these families that have been displaced deal with what has happened to them.

We will be working very closely with the state office of emergency services to provide information, technical information and advice wherever we can. And then as the needs arise and are articulated to us as to what they might be, we will try to satisfy those needs.

At the present time, this is an emergency declaration and it is limited as to how much resources we can bring as far as direct assistance to the families that are out of their homes. We will be able to help people pay for lodging if they have lost their house in this fire and have to get an alternate place to live. We can help them to do that financially. We can help with some public property debris removal. Of course, the insurance agencies will have the first responsibility to compensate the people for their losses and to help with the debris cleanup on the private property.

We will work through those issues as things cool off and we can get into the area and do detailed damage assessments and find the families that own these homes and talk to them to find out what their situation is. We will be here for the duration to work through this thing, and the people here need to know that we're going do what the local government, the state government, the county government, the federal government -- we're going to do all we can do to make their life as easy as possible to get back to normal.

It's going to be some trying days for the next few days for all of us, but we're going to be with them and we're going to work with them to make this as easy as we can.

Thank you very much.

All right, before I sit down, I'd like to introduce Mark Geller Huche (ph) who is our federal coordinating officer and will be here managing the FEMA operation for the days to come.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Next will be the director of the state Emergency Operations Center, and that's Ernesto Rodriguez -- Ernesto.


At the EOC, we are operational 24 hours a day. We've been operational since Sunday evening. Our role is to coordinate all assistance between the state agencies and the federal government and local government. Our office, which is part of the Department of Public Safety and our counterparts in New Mexico State Police -- right here, Chief Taylor -- we are prepared to assist the county in any way the county needs assistance.

The assistance has to come from the local level -- the requests have to come from the local level to us and we are ready. And we have been doing that, providing that assistance.

We have emergency office representative here at the local county EOC and he's there to serve as a bridge between us and the county and the federal government.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From the Los Alamos County Emergency Operations Center, we have Captain Robert Repass. CPT. ROBERT REPASS, LOS ALAMOS COUNTY EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CTR.: OK, first thing I would like to do is -- one of my jobs is to develop a plan for emergency evacuation. And what I would like to do at this time is to give a big, big thank you to the citizens of Los Alamos. My original calculations were that it would take about 10 hours to evacuate town site. We did it in four and a half. And I can't thank the people enough for listening to our words of warning and for remaining calm and patient and heading out. They carried it out. They were the ones that actually did it. They were able to do that without getting anybody injured. So they did a heck of a job and a big thank you to them.

Most of the areas that I would talk about have been covered so far. But I've got a couple areas that I think the citizen will be interested in. One is that we are maintaining high security in the evacuated areas. We have an extremely heavy law enforcement presence, so I think I can assure you that your homes will be safe. We've got officers patrolling also and making sure nobody's in those areas that shouldn't be that will be trying to take advantage of the situation.

The second thing that I need to bring out is the process of bringing people back into the homes. As we mentioned, we're looking at a week, minimum. That is going to be a relatively long-term process. If you remember back when we did all the Y2K talks and the Y2K planning: Didn't need to use it for Y2K, but it turns out we're going to be able to utilize it here. But we have the same sort of problem. We have had to turn off electrical and gas to many of the areas within the town site. And we will have to conduct a relight program to safely get everybody back on board with their natural gas. That is a very time-intensive effort so that will have an effect on how quickly we can bring people in.

One other area I would like to bring up is that we do have a team of our animal control officer and other people that are working to take care of the animals' needs for those animals that were left behind. I'm a pet owner myself, so I know that many of you out there are very concerned if you had to leave an animal behind. We are trying to pick those animals up and take care of them. And if you need some help in that way, please contact the police department and we will get out and do our best to take care of your animal's needs.

Thank you.

QUESTION: What's your name?

REPASS: Robert Repass. It's R-E-P as in Paul A-S-S.

Thank you.

QUESTION: If I understand you correctly, when you say a week, do you mean a week for everyone to get back or a week for anyone to get back?

REPASS: No, all I'm trying to say is, please be patient. It may take longer than you think. There are a lot of big problems out there that we have to resolved to keep people safe and let them back in, that's all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Colonel. We have next Colonel Paul Fallhaver (ph) from the New Mexico National Guard -- Colonel.


Right now, the New Mexico National Guard is involved in Los Alamos County here with about 268 soldiers. We have 68 vehicles up here that are being in direct support of the county. We have power generation equipment in here. We have aircraft that are assisting, doing reconnaissance around the area. We're on 24-hour operations. We anticipate we'll continue that way. So, right now, we are just in general support to the governor's office down to the state EOC into the county and into the city. We're here help anybody that we possibly can in any way that we're capable.

We have lots of talents in the National Guard, as you probably know, ranging from engineering down to just being able to walk a long ways. We're doing a lot of water hauling both for fire suppression out on the fire line, and then we're trying to assist Los Alamos Fire Department with structure suppression as they need water supplies there.

So that is our role at this stage. We're here for the long term. And as citizen soldiers, we're happy to help out.

Thank you.

JOHNSON: The National Guard also will be in charge of this staging area. This will be starting tomorrow morning, Saturday at 8:00 at Highway 4 and Highway 502, which is the White Rock-Los Alamos cutoff. People can start to arrive at 8:00. And, again, the idea here is the guardsmen will accompany individuals wanting to get up here to visit their homes. There'll be more details to be announced. There'll be phone numbers to be announced. But, again, initially, people are going to be able to get back into their homes for a short amount of time to take care of things that they're very concerned with, and the National Guard will be in charge of that.

WATERS: That's New Mexico's Governor Gary Johnson, who began and ended this news conference with local, state and federal officials. The message today: It's still unsafe in Los Alamos, but the National Guard will allow, under escort, owners of some of those homes back in so they can pick up belongings and get back out. Local administrators are saying, give us at least a week because it's still unsafe, a lot of hot spots.

But the word is, the fires are threatening no more homes. We have from the police chief 191 homes burned in this fire. There's going to be a list later on today of the burned down houses and their addresses. A lot of anxiety and anticipation among the folks who are on the outskirts of this who are residents of this town who don't know if these pictures here are of their home or not. They should know that by the end of today. There's also a Web site being set up. If you didn't get the address, it also will include the addresses of the homes burned. That's www.lac.losalamos -- all one word -- Twenty-eight-thousand-eight-hundred acres burned so far. Yesterday it was only 18,000 acres, so you can tell from those statistics that the fire is still raging. They have two teams trying to bring it under control. At least today, weather conditions are a bit better. Those teams have a better chance.

We'll ask some more questions and those will be put to the U.S. senator from New Mexico, a man who was born and raised in this state who has much concern about what's going on there.



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