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Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Discusses Investigation Into Los Alamos Wildfires

Aired May 18, 2000 - 3:48 p.m. ET


BRUCE BABBITT, INTERIOR SECRETARY: I'd like to begin by acknowledging the work that the investigation team has done over the last seven days. The document which will be released and discussed this afternoon is a thorough, detailed, critical, thoughtful investigation of these events, and I think it's quite a remarkable feat for this team of interagency managers and fire specialists brought together one week ago to have done the work, the interviews, the on-the-ground investigation that results in this report.

The investigation -- the composition of the investigation team mirrors the way we do fire on public lands, and that is on a cooperative, interrelated, interagency basis. The leader of the team, Tom Lonnie, is the deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management in the state of Montana. Joe Stutler (ph), whom you will be hearing from, from Redmond, Oregon, is an operations and fire specialist with the Forest Service, Dick Bear (ph) is from the National Park Service from the interagency fire center in Boise.

A word about procedure: We had originally thought to do an abbreviated, oral presentation of the results. I had a look at the visual presentation this morning and changed the agenda because I think it's important that everyone have a chance to see the entire visual discussion so that we can get a texture and a sense of the complexities of this fire and an unflinching appraisal of the mistakes that were made.

Now, the report details many failings. It is unsparing in its analysis of multiple failures throughout the entire process of this prescribed burn, beginning with the preparation of the prescribed-burn plan itself.

Now, inevitably I think there will be an attempt to pinpoint which failing caused this disaster, to simplify and say, here's the point at which this disaster set in. And all the other causes are perhaps extraneous or less important. The report doesn't take that line for two reasons. One, I think you're going to see that the causal chain of had fire is quite complex. I would liken it to what happens on a mountainside when a rock is dislodged, starts rolling down a hill, and pretty soon there are more rocks clattering down the hillside, and then pretty soon there's a whole rain of rocks, and pretty soon there's a landslide by the time it gets to the bottom. Sometimes a rock is dislodged and nothing happens. But other times, a rock is dislodged and it starts a cascading series of events which might have been slowed or stopped by different kinds of decisions, but which, in the end, when you have the landslide at the bottom, in this case the disaster that overwhelmed Los Alamos, there will be a complex chain of causation.

Secondly -- and the fire team makes this point emphatically -- even those failings that were not outcome determinative, that didn't cause the fire, are in our judgment very important, because if they didn't cause this one, if repeated in the future, they may be in the chain of causation of another disaster. And, of course, we are all determined that the lessons must be learned from this, both those that were directly causative and those which represent failures along the entire process.

Let me begin very briefly. The mistakes began with the preparation of the prescribed fire plan. The calculations that went into the finding of complexity were seriously flawed. Now the importance of that is that it resulted in a prescription with a lower classification of complexity, and that meant there were fewer resources and technical support and skills and analysis devoted to this fire. Had those calculations been properly done, there would have been a larger background of personnel and support and review.

So in a sense, with the preparation of the prescribed fire plan and with those mistakes embedded in it, the process began with the agency and the participants behind the curve in ways that will be explained as this discussion is moved out with the video.

A second point that I would make of just a few brief comments is that it's clear that there were large mistakes of agency oversight. The issue here is the degree to which the preparations and analysis are being reviewed and signed off at a higher level. There's a tendency in all decision-making trees that the higher up you go the more tendency there is for busy supervisory personnel with many other responsibilities simply to rubber-stamp decisions that are basically made by the technical people at the field level. That's an unacceptable paradigm. It's an unacceptable model for the use of fire, because fire is the most dangerous and unpredictable force that we deal with. And that particular issue will be spotlighted again and again to the analysis of the professionals.

The report makes it clear that the Park Service failed on a large scale to bring in other agencies. This fire was conceived and put on the ground as sort of within -- within our bailiwick, within the park deal. But the problem is that it's a small park and it is surrounded by a national forest. It is surrounded by Indian reservations, by the community of Los Alamos, by many other land managers. And the failure to make this from the outset a clear interrelated, interagency effort across the landscape had many, many consequences which will be detailed in the analysis of the fire.

Lastly, let me briefly address -- there are going to be many other questions. The most important question on my mind was presented to me about an hour ago by two mayors, two local officials. One was a mayor of Los Alamos, the other the mayor of Santa Fe. And their question was: What are communities in New Mexico, the Southwest, and indeed all over the national forest and Western landscape going to hear about initiatives to provide safety for their communities, to manage forests on this wild land urban interface so that the experience of Los Alamos is not repeated?

It is a very important question. And as I speak today, the leadership of the Forest Service and the other land management agencies are engaged in discussions with the United States Congress to see if we can, as the most urgent proactive item of all, put up a fore-implementation, a fire safety and fireproofing program on the urban wildlife interface for communities like Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and others.

You may ask, how is this done? Well, fortunately, there is a citywide demonstration model now under way just to the west in Flagstaff, Arizona. Under the leadership of the Forest Service, with professor Wallace Covington (ph) at Northern Arizona University, with communities, agencies, everybody bonded in. The model that I think is going to provide the basis for this initiative simply says that we have a special obligation in our management of forests to deal with these safety issues, to avoid the possibility, even, of another Los Alamos.

The problem is this: the forests are explosive. They are too thick. They are too cluttered with young growth pines. They are reflecting the legacy of a long history of fire suppression in forests which co-evolve with fire.

The Flagstaff model covers about 100,000 acres and it is a combination of thinning, of getting into the forest and thinning out the trees, and then applying prescribed fire, not into an explosive forest, but into a properly thinned forest, to maintain the health, the freshness and vitality of the growth to keep from repeating these forests that are just choked with full -- full of fuel waiting to explode. We will be discussing that initiative with the New Mexico delegation.

I have said on behalf of the Forest Service to the mayor of Santa Fe that the watershed in this community in which we are meeting today is certainly at the very top of the list for this approach to fire- proofing through the proactive use of thinning and the application of prescribed fire.

With that, I would like to get into the power point presentation.

BOBBIE BATTISTA, CNN ANCHOR: Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's opening remarks today preceding a panel discussion on what caused the fire at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The secretary did admit that large mistakes were made in terms of the prescribed fire plan out there and large mistakes of agency oversight were also made in the chain of command.



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