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Special Event

Forest Service Admits Los Alamos Fire is Still Growing in all Directions

Aired May 13, 2000 - 4:07 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BRIAN NELSON, CNN ANCHOR: Now we want to take you to Los Alamos, where a news conference is just getting under way for a status on those wildfires.

Let listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.

I think most of you have the press release that's dated May 12, 8:30. What we talk about there is the new location of the Joint Information Center. It is now located at the Johnson Control Building, which is right behind the Northern New Mexico Community College in Espanola. The address is 1027 North Railroad Avenue. I have phone numbers on the press release. I also -- what is not on the release are the fax numbers. I'll read those to you -- 747-0718, 753- 2224, 753-2065. All of those need to be proceeded by area code 505 because it is long distance.

The Joint Information Center, we are going to have representatives from the Department of Energy, the Los Alamos Area Office. FEMA is going to be joining us. The Red Cross will be down there. We are hoping that the state is going to be there. The objective of the Joint Information Center is to have one location where we will have representatives that can provide you folks in the community with information. You are welcome to call the numbers that are on the sheets, and we'll provide you with information as we get it. We do get it on a fairly regular basis, so we encourage to you call us.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, M.J.

Jim Paxton, from the U.S. Forest Service.

JIM PAXTON, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: We will maintain our local media contacts here, across the street from the Los Alamos Inn and East of Ashley Pond, there's a community center building that has a small Forest Service satellite office. That will be our contact. It will not be staffed around the clock, but we'll have somebody there during most of the daylight working hours.

This fire has gotten big, and you can see what it's doing today. And because of the complexity and the numbers of jurisdictions, a decision was made by the agencies involved that we could would branch this fire. What that means is that there is actually two type-one fire teams working on this. The team that I represent is Larry Humphrey's southwest area team. The other team is Van Bateman's southwest area team. We're all interagency. They have an information officer as well. Her name is Cathy spelled with a "C," Schmidlin -- S-C-H-M-I-D-L-I-N.

Because there is two fire teams working, they are working the north end and the Santa Clara Pueblo and Boca Ranch side. We're remaining here on south side with the city county of Los Alamos and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Well, since there is two teams, we need somebody to help us coordinate and provide oversight. The way we do that in the instant command system is we bring in an area commander. The area commander kind of keeps his finger on the pulse of both teams, looks at management and emerging issues. That area commander is Bob Meuchel. It is not spelled like you think. It's M-E-U-C-H-E-L. And Bob's going to come up here and talk to you about the priorities and the objectives for both teams in his area command.

BOB MEUCHEL, AREA COMMANDER: OK, the priorities today are firefighter public safety and also to assist the Los Alamos County in this area to continue to fight this fire. We're also protecting the National Los Alamos Lab, and then our next objective is to get containment on the east side that, that fire that's going down toward White Rock is primary concern, and the fire going towards the Santa Clara Pueblo is a concern. The fire has turned to the north, and it continues to burn in that direction, and we're are working with the people up there to ensure that the public will be notified if there is any risk to their property.

PAXTON: I want to talk just a little bit -- and I've got a human pointer. If the cameras want to go to the white map, we're going to talk about what's happening with this fire right now, and John Peterson's going to be my pointer.

The big smoke that we see to our west is on Guahay (ph) Peak -- show them Guahay, John. Right there, OK? Behind us to the north, the big smoke that's coming out of there is in Guahay Canyon and partly Santa Clara Canyon to the north. This fire is progressing to the north and east, towards the Santa Clara Pueblo.

The other peak that's really pretty dead is Pajarito (ph) Peak, where the electronic towers and the ski area are. There's still a lot of fire up there, but it's burned over quite severely, and there's not near as much activity there. So that gives you a point of reference.

John, move over ti this other map.

The orange that you see is the Santa Clara Pueblo. The red line identifies the fire perimeter as of midnight last night. And you can see that we're also getting close to the San Il D'Aphanso (ph) Pueblo.

Primarily, the fire is in the Santa Fe National Forest and the Espanola ranger district of the Santa Fe National Forest. But down low in the left-hand corner we have Bandelier National Monument and the Baca Ranch. To the south is Los Alamos National Lab and the town and county of Los Alamos.

White Rock is way down in the lower right-hand corner, and the fire presently is about three miles from White Rock. There's not too much smoke activity down there. We predicted that we were going to have southerly flows, a little cooler temperature and more moisture today. Two out of three is not bad, I guess, because we've got a little more moisture and a little cooler temperatures. We're able to go in and directly attack the fire in Pajarito Canyon that's advancing towards White Rock.

These big plumes that you see are the result of that inversion lifting out of here early this morning. The smoke haze that went away, well, that also facilitates burning. The winds are a little stronger than we expected, but they're nothing like they were Sunday and again Wednesday.

Now this fire is still advancing in three directions. At midnight last night, we were at 33,000 acres. We said then that we had only 5 percent of it contained. Contained means that there's a line on that fire and it's not advancing in that particular portion. With a fire burning in so many different directions, it will be long time before we get this fire contained. We just simply don't have enough people-power and machines and aircraft to just stop it right now. This fire is going to burn for weeks.

And so, as we get lines contained, lines built and held, that percentage will increase. But we're not going put any of our firefighters at risk, and the evacuations and the notice to the public is going to hopefully keep the public out of risk, too.

One thing, and I've been asked a lot, is is Los Alamos clear of danger? No. Los Alamos nor Los Alamos Lab are out of risk of being visited by fire. There's five finger mesas here in the town of Los Alamos, and I'm sure that the county folks and others are going to speak to this. But with fire in the bottom of the canyon, all it takes is a good push with wind and a little opportunity with temperature and humidity, and that fire will come out of the canyon again. That's why you see so many helicopters doing bucket drops and crews and fire engines working on the ground.

We're trying very hard to get a handle on the fires in Los Alamos and on the lab, along with Los Alamos Fire Department, all of the state agencies that are here and the lab folks. But it's not out of risk, and that's the reason people are not coming back in. It's just too much danger to have them back in. And when an emergency vehicle needs to get to an ignition where fires come out of the canyon, they don't need people in the way. We hope everybody understands. We're going to get folks back in just as soon as we can, but it's got to be a safe situation for them and for the firefighters.

Now this thing is growing, and we don't know where it's going to end up. It is burning to the west, it's burning to the north, it's burning to the east and it's burning to the southeast. But it's still one fire. And we'll be working on it.

With the folks in Espanola with Van Bateman's team, there's going to be considerable opportunity for media and for information up there. We hope you'll use that. We'll remain here and do the information and media contacts and public contacts from this side.

Again, we want to hold questions until everybody gets through this..

NELSON: You've been listening to a news conference by the forest service officials in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Pretty much a pessimistic forecast. They had hoped to have about 20 percent of the fires contained by nightfall, and now we have just heard that the fire is growing in all directions. It is growing away from Los Alamos Laboratory at the moment, but as was just pointed out, heavy winds could kick that up at any time. And so evacuees are not going to be able to return to their homes at least just yet. There is too much danger, we are told.

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