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Fires Continue to Spread in New Mexico Despite Calmer Winds; Firefighters Watch Their Homes Go Up in Smoke

Aired May 12, 2000 - 2:01 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The winds have calmed but the fire is still spreading in Los Alamos. At least 20,000 people in northern New Mexico remain forced out of their homes. The latest government pictures taken from space show nearly 30,000 acres have been consumed by the wildfire.

On the ground, people are keeping one eye on the fires, the other on television news pictures of destroyed or damaged homes, hoping their's will be spared. So far, officials estimate about 200 homes have been lost.

Several small buildings have been damaged at the Los Alamos Nuclear Lab. And now there's a new crisis in southern New Mexico where a second wildfire has burned 20,000 acres in a single day. Several communities in that area have now been evacuated.

CNN's national correspondent Tony Clark is in Los Alamos this afternoon and he tells us that the pictures -- the television pictures you're seeing don't tell the full story -- Tony.

TONY CLARK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Lou, you get a chance to see what some people will have to return to, and they simply will not have anything to return to. This is an area called the North Community in Los Alamos. The fire swept through here around 9:00 yesterday morning and you can see here from the pictures what is left. And there's simply nothing left.

This, I believe, was a quadriplex. This is an area that was mostly duplexes and quadriplexes, and there is simply nothing left. In fact, the heat of the fire, the intensity of the fire that came through here not only shattered the windows, it melted the glass. You can see the plumbing, the refrigerator and hot water heaters are simply charred and on their sides. There is simply nothing at all. At is simply house after house. It's not -- it has not discriminated against -- it has wiped out this whole area of homes.

Surprisingly, though -- and this is the sort of thing we sometimes see with storms and tornadoes and the like -- if you look back, you can see some homes were saved while others in front of them were completely destroyed.

The fire is continuing to cause potential problems. This is an area that still has hot spots -- smoldering hot spots. Fire trucks have been going through this area throughout the day to make sure that other fires do not start up. There is -- in fact, John, if we can show on the horizon, you can see where the plume of smoke is coming up from other fires as the fire has moved, in this case, further north. The fires have moved both north and south, as well as east.

The one difference today, the one benefit today, is the wind is not as strong as it was yesterday; that giving firefighters a chance to do some good, to try to battle this blaze. But as I say, in this area, North Community, when residents are allowed to come back, they will find nothing -- many of them will find nothing to come back to -- Lou.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And, Tony, what about those folks that want to come back? Are they at the outskirts eager to get in there?

CLARK: They have been -- most of the people who have been evacuated have gone in with family and friends in surrounding communities. Some are staying at hotels. But the local government is publishing a list of the 191 homes that they know are destroyed and they're putting it both on a Web site and releasing it at one of the nearby schools so that people can find out if their home was destroyed.

You know, for the last few days, so many of them have been gathering around news sets wherever they could to watch news video to see if there was a scene of their neighborhood, so they could see whether their home was safe or not. And, as I say, for many people in the North Community, they will find that they have nothing left.

WATERS: There's another effort being made, Tony. We're beginning to hear about the animals who were left behind and the efforts by local state officials to round them up and take care of them. What do you know about it, if anything?

CLARK: Well, there is an effort. In fact, some people may not have been able to take some of the animals that they had, some of the pets with them when the evacuation occurred. You got to remember, this evacuation was done in simply four hours. It was a very quick evacuation. And so there have been crews going through the neighborhoods trying to find any, perhaps, stray animals, pets that survived the fire and take them to a place where their owners can retrieve them.

This is one of the things we often see in floods and other disasters, that pets are left and there is a search. And so I know a lot of people who did -- who may have left their pets are eager to find them again, and officials are going through the neighborhoods, patrolling the neighborhoods, not only to see what they can -- see if there are any hot spots, but also to see if there are any animals that are here running loose.

WATERS: All right, national correspondent Tony Clark with a closer look today at the devastation following the firestorm in Los Alamos, which continues, but we're told now poses no more threats to homes -- at least not right now. ALLEN: Well, we've just received video recently of the last homes that have burned from this fire. This is an area just outside Los Alamos. We received this video just a few moments ago as firefighters try to prevent anymore homes -- you can see they're trying to put this fire out, but this home is a total loss.

Right now, it's just past noontime in New Mexico. And as temperatures heat up for the day, firefighters hope the winds will stay relatively calm.

We get the latest from the firefighters' perspective now from CNN's Greg LaMotte.


GREG LAMOTTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If this is hell, firefighter Dean Stoop (ph) fought it. Now he's living it. While battling all the ferocious fires, his own home -- the one he shared with his mother -- was burned to the grouped.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then I called family members this morning and it was a real emotional phone call. It's real hard to tell your mother she lost her house.

LAMOTTE: For many of the firefighters, the adrenaline is gone. Now they're left with their emotions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is my town and to watch it burn down is more than I can handle.

LAMOTTE: Veteran fire Chief Doug Tucker.

DOUG TUCKER, LOS ALAMOS FIRE DEPARTMENT: ... watching the reaction of the people knowing that their houses has burned. Some of our firefighters have lost their homes and it's pretty sad, you know, and that they're out protecting other people's property and that there's absolutely nothing that can be done different. They know that and they understand it, but it doesn't make it easy. You know, you think about walking out of your house one day and then coming back and nothing there. That's pretty devastating, in my mind..


LAMOTTE: The fireman who lost the house that he shared with his mother said that his mother, who's 75 years old, was on vacation when their house burned to the ground. The fireman said he believed they will be able to rebuild their lives. He said that his father passed away a few years ago, said the family had bought the house back in the 1960s.

I might add that the community of White Rock, which was evacuated just like Los Alamos a few days ago, is apparently being heavily threatened by flames. Many of the firefighters -- the ones that can be afforded from Los Alamos -- are rushing over to White Rock in hopes of saving that community from the same fate that struck Los Alamos -- Natalie. ALLEN: So the work continues at this moment.

Greg, do you have a current account on how many homes have been lost until now? And what about the winds today? Is the weather improving?

LAMOTTE: Well, the weather has improved dramatically from yesterday and the day before. For instance, right now, there's just a slight breeze in the air. Yesterday, the winds were blowing in the 50-mile-per-hour range at about this time. So, clearly, the firefighters will, at least from a wind perspective, be able to get an upper hand on the fires that are burning.

In terms of the houses that have burned, firefighters, they tell us, aren't counting the houses and they go to try to save them, they're just concerned about knocking out flames. But they estimate that as many as 300 homes have been destroyed.

ALLEN: Greg LaMotte.

Again, Greg reporting that White Rock may still be seeing houses burned, and so we'll keep you posted on that development.

Thank you, Greg.

Now to Lou.

WATERS: Authorities in Los Alamos are letting a limited number of people return to their neighborhoods for a short while under National Guard escort to see for themselves whether their home still is standing. But officials remain very cautious about the fire's potential to cause more damage.


STEVE COBURN, FIRE MARSHAL: 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're going to take advantage of that. We're going to commit resources to hot-spotting, that type of thing, and that's what the crews are looking for right now.

WATERS: Officials estimate the Los Alamos fires could burn a total of 35,000 acres by tomorrow.

ALLEN: The officials who ordered the brush-burning fire that raced out of control have heard their decision second-guessed. But the experts tell us that, under the proper circumstances, it is the wise thing to do.

For clarification, we turned to a man who should know: the fire chief of Los Angeles County.


CHIEF MICHAEL FREEMAN, LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPT.: We have found that in order to remove hazardous brush that presents a threat to structures is if we go in under ideal weather conditions with plenty of emergency equipment and personnel, plan it out, and then under those ideal conditions, remove the fuel through fire and which sets up a fire break so that if there is a wildfire under less than ideal conditions, driven by wind and so forth, the fire will move to that break that we've created through a controlled burn.

Any time we have fire in the outdoor environment, there's always the concern of the fuel types, the breezes, the winds, the humidity, fuel moistures, and all of those things -- plus the fact if we're burning on a hillside or some elevated ground, that can creates some particular challenges. What we do in the county of Los Angeles, we pre-plan these burns well in advance to try to be sure that everything -- fuel, fuel type, fuel moisture, the humidity, the wind, and then our resources are in place -- that all of that is well thought out before we ever light the fire.

Our concern is always that the fire stays within our proscribed limitations on the fire. We do not want the fire to escape. And until we get the fire completed and well-extinguished, and then we leave resources there for several hours, sometimes days, to be sure that it is really out.

We establish what we call a proscription for the burning, and that proscription includes a buffer zone. And so we have our target area that we plan to burn and then we have our safety zone around that. And we have had occasions where the fire went further than what expected. And as soon as that happens, we extinguish it. We do have helicopters on standby and we have other personnel and equipment there and we try to keep it within the proscription. And sometimes the wind will kick up unexpectedly even though we do hourly weather checks. We keep the fire boss fully informed as to the weather conditions. And what we've begun recently is to start earlier in the morning and wrap up earlier in the afternoon so that we can mop it up before it gets real hot.

Controlled burning is well thought out, it's preplanned. It's like your bread-and-butter play, if you want to use the Hail Mary pass as a, you know, a football metaphor -- is -- a controlled burn is like a dive pattern: It's well thought out, it's well-planned, the resources are there. Sometimes the linebacker makes a good tackle, but, by and large, it's a bread-and-butter play and it's something that's done to try to prevent a disaster.


ALLEN: And they have a disaster in New Mexico as the result of a controlled burn, however. And the National Parks official who approved the fire that spread in New Mexico was placed on leave yesterday pending an investigation. The National Weather Service had faxed a forecast to the park before the fire was set, warning that fire growth conditions were at a maximum.



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