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New Mexico Fires: Interior Secretary Babbitt to Release Preliminary Report on Controlled Burn Gone Awry

Aired May 18, 2000 - 2:00 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Burned-out residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico are angry at the government, and justifiably so, they say. Ninety minutes from now, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will be in the hot seat. He will be releasing his preliminary report on the Los Alamos fire, explaining how a controlled burn got so wildly out of control. Whole neighborhoods were wiped off the map when flames rolled over Los Alamos, a company town, home to the nation's top nuclear lab.

CNN's Martin Savidge has our report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Los Alamos, first came the fire, now comes the heat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would not have lost my home had there not been a fire, and I want to see some kind of compensation for my loss.

REP. HEATHER WILSON (R), NEW MEXICO: It took away your home, and a lot of other homes too, and you should have that made right.

SAVIDGE: Before it can make things right, the federal government is trying to figure out what went wrong, how a controlled burn set by the National Park Service to ease the threat of wildfire instead triggered the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, destroying over 200 homes and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Two days after the fire roared through Los Alamos, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced a probe into its cause; specifically, if the Park Service's plan for the May 4 burn was adequate, and why warnings of high winds by the National Weather Service went unheeded.

Roy Weaver, the superintendent of the Bandelier National Monument where the fire was started, has taken responsibility for the decision to go ahead with the burn. He is currently on a paid leave of absence.

BILL ARMSTRONG, FORESTRY EXPERT: Rather reflecting on who's to blame or why it happened, let's reflect on trying to keep it from happening again. SAVIDGE: In 1998, forestry expert Bill Armstrong warned of the potential for a catastrophic fire in the Los Alamos area within five years. He saw lightning as the most likely cause.

ARMSTRONG: You could eliminate people entirely from this landscape and you are not going to eliminate fire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE: One of the issues that really does concern Bill Armstrong is, he believes, in the rush to lay blame, people may be missing the big picture. He says the conditions that started this wildfire and allowed it to spread so quickly still exist out there, and that the community of Los Alamos is still threatened by potentially future wildfires.

Meanwhile, there was a statement coming from the White House a short while ago, White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart saying that the Clinton administration is working to ensure that all those who sustained losses in the Los Alamos fire will be fully compensated. He said, quote, "We are consulting with Congress now on what's the best approach for getting compensation to the people as quickly as possible," unquote. Obviously, that's going to be welcome news here.

Meanwhile, the battle against that wildfire is continuing. It is by no means under control. Firefighters say they have made a great deal of progress. They report the blaze is about 60 percent contained. So far, it has consumed over 47,500 acres, and the cost of battling that blaze is now in excess of $6 million. That does not include the damage -- Lou.

WATERS: Martin Savidge in Santa Fe today.

The Los Alamos fire will be the topic ahead on "TALKBACK LIVE" seen at the top of the hour. And the "TALKBACK LIVE" staff will have live coverage of Secretary Babbitt's news conference, and that's set for 3:30 Eastern Daylight Time.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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