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Breaking News

Government Suspends Prescribed Burns in Some Areas

Aired May 12, 2000 - 4:42 p.m. ET

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

BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Bernard Shaw in Washington.

The fires in Los Alamos, New Mexico. A news conference under way now. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

People from the area have been evacuated. There are indications that they won't be able to return to their homes for upwards of a week.

Federal officials have been continually assuring the American people that the nuclear storage facilities are safe. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said that the public need not worry about the safety of the nuclear complex.

Ray Weaver, the Bandelier National Monument supervisor who approved the controlled burn, despite the weather conditions, has been suspended with pay pending an investigation.

New Mexico's two senators here in Washington are calling for a congressional probe of what happened. Mr. Weaver, the 33-year Park Service veteran, is described by his friends and colleagues as anguished and in a state of shock.

Interior Secretary Babbitt here just pausing for a moment before beginning this news conference, which we presume will be an update of the situation. Here's the interior secretary.

BRUCE BABBITT, U.S. SECRETARY OF INTERIOR: OK, we have a good number of people here, and we have a substantial number of topics to cover. So what I would like to do is ask your forbearance as follows: First of all, I'm going to ask Governor Johnson to step forward and make an announcement and discuss some issues, and just for the sake of getting through this, it would be appropriate if you would then ask any questions of Governor Johnson related as much as you possibly can to the subject of what he's talking about.

After that, Mike Dombeck and I have several topics to cover, several announcements, and I'd like to follow the same kind of procedure. I'll say a few words, Mike will then follow up, and then I'd ask you, if you have questions to myself and Dombeck that relate to that, that would be the appropriate time.

I will then ask Congressman Udall to make some comments and I'll ask Congressman Wilson to do the same. Now, kind of about that point I expect it will turn into the usual free-for-all, and at that point it will be appropriate to let you do your thing. Karen White is here. She is the regional director of the National Park Service. Bob Stanton, the national -- the director of the National Park Service. We have the FEMA representative.

If you have fire-status questions, Jim Paxon is here. He's the fire information officer, and I would urge you to keep your fire- status questions for Paxon. He will be on once we've gone through the rest of this.

OK, with that, Governor Johnson will lead the way -- Gary.

GOV. GARY JOHNSON (R), NEW MEXICO: We had announced earlier that we were going to have details regarding individuals that would be able to be escorted up to Los Alamos starting at 8 o'clock tomorrow. That is not going to happen.

We have said now that we're going to set up two briefings a day. And right now is still not safe to bring individuals up to Los Alamos. Details will be released. Again with two briefings a day, we're going to be able to do that.

Not safe. Colonel Fallhaber (ph) of the National Guard will be releasing details of how we're going to do that. And again, we're engaged in making that happen just as soon as possible.

The other announcement is simply the Red Cross here in New Mexico has asked that I announce that they can't handle any more food. Now, if that isn't something that is pretty heartening, I don't know what is. There has been that much outpouring. They can't accept any more clothing, food than what they've got. At this point we need some money.

And again, thanks to all of New Mexico. It's been evident to everybody that's been up here of that outpouring, and you've all seen it. So, that's it from me.

BABBITT: Questions of the governor.

QUESTION: Governor, could you explain why it's not safe? Is there still a threat that some of these homes could catch fire?

JOHNSON: You know, there still is the fire threat. That has to be stressed. And then right now as we speak there's the utility cleanup that's going on. For example -- I mean, there is still wires that need to be removed, and then now we're into issues just beyond getting people up here, which is getting people back into Los Alamos.

You can't just turn the gas back on. You've got to light the gas when -- you've got to be prepared to light the gas as you turn it back on. You just can't just turn the electricity on. And of course, it's got to get terminated. So there are those kinds of issues also.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) JOHNSON: Compared to what it's been, this is stable. I mean, this is incredibly stable. This is very, very positive.

I mean, again, for those of you that were here yesterday afternoon, who would have dreamed we'd be standing here right now under these conditions right now?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) be allowed back in tomorrow morning as well?

JOHNSON: That's a fact. And again, let me just state the obvious, that when you start talking about phasing people back in, allowing people to come back in, White Rock is going to be the first to come back. And we're very, very aware that we've got to get this accomplished. So a lot of people are working really hard to make that happen.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) can determine how soon it might begin?

JOHNSON: Again, optimistically, it was going to happen at 8 o'clock tomorrow. So hopefully, tomorrow, we're talking about something immediate tomorrow.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) logistic or safety?

JOHNSON: Safety and logistics. Safety with regard to fire, regarding wind today having changed, wind blowing north. And you know, you've got a little bit of -- I'm not going to use the proper term, but fire coming this direction.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) homes that were destroyed. People want to get in whose homes were destroyed, are they going to be allowed (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or is strictly going to be folks whose homes are still...

JOHNSON: Yes, and part of what's going to be released by the National Guard is dealing with those individuals that have lost their homes. In other words, that's going to be a whole separate organization that we can bring those individuals together, that all of their needs get met, that they one-stop shop over at the emergency center in Santa Fe, and then to arrange transportation to, in fact, get them up here also.

BABBITT: Thank you, Governor.

I know there have been many questions about the agencies that were in charge of the fire prescriptions, about the chain of causal events. And the current task is to get the investigation under way.

Now the National Interagency Fire Center and the federal land management agencies, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, have a standard investigation protocol and regulations to govern that investigation.

Now I have instructed the National Interagency Fire Center to form that investigative team, and, as I think you are aware, the director of the team, who is Tom Lonnie (ph), is the deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management in Montana. He is here on the ground. He will be assembling his team -- most of the members have already been reported, and there will be a release available detailing the team members and their functions.

Now I have asked them to report back by May 18th. Normally, where there are not fatalities, these investigations can move with dispatch. And unless there are unanticipated problems, I expect Tom Lonnie will be able to report back to us by May 18th.

Now following his report, we will convene a review board at the national level. The composition of that review board has not yet been worked out. I think it's safe to say that by early in the week we will have that. It will certainly include a representative of the Interior Department, a representative of the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service, probably a state forester, and one or two other outside experts in the assessment of these kinds of issues.

There will be a public information officer for the investigation team. I'm aware that there have already been requests for documents. I'm going to direct all of those to the investigation director, and my instructions to the investigation team are that they should release documents in their good judgment, in any way that is consistent with their investigation. And I will allow -- I will leave to them the timing and pace of document releases. I just want to assure you that it will be done. There's an awful lot of stuff that needs to be addressed. I'm going to leave it in their discretion to set out a schedule and their public information officer to address those issues with you.

Now I met last night with Secretary Glickman to discuss whether or not we should suspend fire prescription activity and if so, where, and on what terms and what conditions. We both agreed that it would be a good idea to pause. We both reaffirm our commitments to the prescribed fire program. It's an important program. It's been in operation for a goodly number of years.

In recent years, both the Forest Service and land management agencies have been burning about two to two and a half million acres a year with prescribed fires. And every successful prescribed fire is a blow for safety in surrounding communities and for forest health. These forests are made safer by periodic fire. It's a natural part of the evolution and growth and maintenance of healthy forests, and the only question is do we leave it for chance to dictate when a fire will occur and what the consequences will be, or do we continue on a course to manage fire to understand that it's an essential part of the landscape? And there's no question in either my mind or Secretary Glickman's that this program is solidly conceived, that it's a very important part of Western land management, and that while we certainly are going to learn from every incident, we're confident that the essentials of the program are an important part of our land management responsibilities.

Now...

QUESTION: Sir, in the microphone, please, Mr. Secretary. BABBITT: ... that said, it is an appropriate time to pause and say to the public we need to take a pause to assure you that we are taking advantage of whatever there is to be learned in this incident, and that we are not going to take on any unnecessary risks. It's for that reason now that I would like to introduce Mike Dombeck, who is the chief of the forest service, and ask him to describe to you the nature of the temporary suspension of any further activity under the prescribed fire program -- Mike. And then you can have at both of us after Mike's done.

MICHAEL DOMBECK, DIR., U.S. FOREST SERVICE: Thank you, Secretary Babbitt.

First, I want to say on behalf of my boss, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, I want to extend his personal sympathy to all those that lost property, lost their homes here in this community. And I also want to thank the local fire department, the police department. Many of those people have lost their homes for their vigilance here and all you've done. And I want to thank the firefighters that are here. We need to be thankful that we do, in fact, have among the best in the world, those that work here in Los Alamos, those that work here in New Mexico, and those that work across the U.S., putting their life in harm's way to protect the property of others. And we all need to owe them a debt of gratitude for what they do.

And it was so gratifying to hear the governor talk about the generosity that we've seen here. People care, and that's what communities are all about.

With regard to the pause, the temporary suspension of the prescribed fires, after consultation with the experts within the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the experts in the wild land fire-management community and in consultation with others, we decided that it was appropriate immediately to suspend for a 30-day period prescribed fire west of the 100th meridian. The exception to that would simply be this, that where there is low risk and need to apply fire, that would be considered. But we would require agency-level approval to move forward with those specific prescribed fires.

So it's really fairly simple. I'll describe it one more time. We're immediately suspending the use of prescribed fire west of the 100th meridian for a 30-day period. We would allow exceptions in certain situations where there is low risk, but it would require agency-level approval.

BABBITT: OK, where is the 100th meridian? The 100th meridian runs roughly through west Texas, Nebraska, the Dakotas. It is the line beyond which there's generally less than 20" of rainfall as you go west. The important point is it includes the Rocky Mountain West.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you're going to have an investigation into the fire. On Monday, the director of Bandelier Monument already accepted responsibility that their prescribed burn caused this wildfire. If your investigation confirms that as well, will the federal government accept liability as well as responsibility for the damages to its community?

BABBITT: The issues of liability are the province of the attorney general and the Justice Department. Now I think that I can speak for the governor, the members of Congress, Mike Dombeck and myself in saying that we are all deeply impressed by the extent of this tragedy, and we are committed to working together to do the best we can to make the victims whole. Now beyond that, I cannot go, because the lawyers will ultimately have the say along with the members of Congress. And you'll hear from Congresswoman Wilson and Congressman Udall.

QUESTION: Will the Park Service pay for the fire, though?

BABBITT: These issues will all require a response from the lawyers in the Justice Department.

QUESTION: Is there a formal response coming.

BABBITT: These issues will all be dealt with by the Justice Department and the Congress.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary.

BABBITT: Yes.

QUESTION: We now have two prescribed burns that have gone out of control, one here and one in the Grand Canyon. Both have been set by the Park Service, both have been -- both were set after wind warnings were issued. Is there a systemic problem with the park service's prescribed burn policy?

BABBITT: That's the reason for the investigation. See us on May 18th and we'll be ready to discuss it.

QUESTION: As a follow up, will you be investigating the Grand Canyon fire, 7,000 acres?

BABBITT: All prescribed burns that run outside of the prescription have a follow-up review. It's a part of the land management policy. Once the fire's out of prescription, there will be a review.

QUESTION: There were reports that Russia was going to help out with the effort. Is that true?

BABBITT: Pardon?

QUESTION: There were conflicting reports that Russia was going to help out, too, with putting out the fires. Is that true?

SHAW: We have been bringing you live coverage from New Mexico, an update from the news conference in which the basic headline is that the federal government this afternoon has announced a temporary 30-day suspension of all prescribed fires. Interior Secretary Babbitt said that the area involved includes the 100th meridian. That area runs through west Texas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, and it includes areas west of the Rockies.

Secretary Babbitt defended the burn program, but said for now it should be temporarily halted as an investigation into what happened gets under way.

I'm Bernard Shaw in Washington. Please stay tuned for "INSIDE POLITICS" in a moment.

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