Flames at Los Alamos: What Went Wrong?

In December 1999, the Los Alamos National Laboratory identified “wildfire as the greatest threat to Los Alamos operations.”  As recently as April, Diana Webb, the chair of the Los Alamos Ecology Group told a meeting of concerned citizens,“It’s not a matter of if but when wildfire will again threaten the Lab, Los Alamos, and surrounding areas. We can’t stress this enough.”


Los Alamos was not alone in facing a large fire hazard.  In 1998, Barry Hill, associate director of the General Accounting Office, testified to the Congress that an “increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires” were being seen across the West.  As a result of past fire suppression,  “vegetation [had] accumulated, creating high levels of fuels…and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox.”


This was not news to forestry experts.  In 1994, the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters had already warned of “an extreme fire hazard from the extensive build-up of dry, highly flammable forest fuels.”  In their current incendiary condition, new forest fires posed a constant risk of becoming “so hot and fast-moving that control by human means is impossible.” The Commission recommended immediate and heroic measures to address the widespread dangers across the West to lives and property.


Such expert warnings, as the entire nation learned last month, were not heeded.  At Los Alamos, an uncontrollable fire burned over 44,000 acres, required the evacuation of 25,000 people, destroyed 405 homes, and spread to parts of the Los Alamos National Laboratory where the first atom bomb had been built and many nuclear residues remain. 


Conditions similar to those near Los Alamos exist today on 40 million acres of the national forest system.  Although the Los Alamos fire started as a prescribed burn on Bandelier National Monument, it soon moved to the Santa Fe National Forest where most of the burning actually occurred.  If this national forest had not been a torch waiting to be lit, the Park Service errors in judgment would probably have proven harmless.


National forests throughout the West face a very high fire hazard because forest fires were suppressed for most of the 20th century.  It turned out to be a monumental policy mistake.  Smokey the Bear was wrong.  Suppressing fire does not eliminate the risk of fire but instead defers it into the future, as wood levels continue to build up.  When a forest fire eventually does break out, if not suppressed rapidly, it burns much more intensely, posing a major danger to lives and property and doing much harm to the environment itself.


Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, and other top Clinton administration officials know all this.  However, they are caught in a rigid ideological bind that has prevented them from taking effective fire preventive action for the past seven years.


There are three possible outcomes for the excess wood that past fire suppression has left standing on the western forests. It can be burned up in small, prescribed fires, as the National Park Service was trying to do at Bandelier.  It can be removed mechanically by cutting down and physically carrying out the trees.  Or it can be left to burn up in occasional large and unintended conflagrations¾more of the potentially catastrophic forest fires like the one that broke out at Los Alamos.


The Clinton administration has opted for the first option.  Prescribed burning has become almost the official religion, the one proper way that forests must be cleansed of excess wood “naturally” (as if a fire deliberately set is “natural”).  Forest managers have been under strong pressure to raise the levels of prescribed burns.


Yet prescribed burning faces major constraints.  There is always the risk, as seen at Los Alamos, that the fire will get out of control¾and future federal forest managers are now bound after this experience to be much more cautious in this regard.  More and more homes, cabins, resorts, and other buildings are being located in heavily forested areas.  The weather and moisture conditions also have to be just right, and there is a further serious problem of air pollution in many parts of the West.  Finally, prescribed burning¾with all the fire precautions necessary¾is expensive.  Hence, the overall level of prescribed burning in recent years has fallen far short of that necessary to clean western forests of their excess fuels and resulting fire hazard.


If anything is to be done, the Forest Service in many areas will simply have to remove brush and other vegetation by mechanical means.  In other words, there will have to be a much expanded program of timber sales.


But that is where the problem for the Clinton administration comes in.  In the very same week that portions of the Santa Fe National Forest near Los Alamos burned up, the Forest Service announced a new moratorium on road building on 43 million acres of national forests, making mechanical removal near impossible while fueling the tinderbox.  Since 1989, harvest levels on national forests have fallen from 12 billion board feet per year to less than 4 billion. 


National environmental organizations want timber harvesting to fall farther still.  The members of the Sierra Club, for example, voted in 1996 to press for a total ban on new timber harvesting of any kind in the national forest system.  Dependent on environmentalist support, the Clinton administration has shown little ability or inclination to resist such outside pressures.


If prescribed burning is not able to do the job, and mechanical removal is foreclosed for political and ideological reasons, the de facto policy amounts to waiting for large and unplanned fires to burn.  Many cities in the west have in effect been entered into a new national game of Russian roulette.  It was just the bad luck of Los Alamos that it happened to catch the fire bullet this time around.


Last year, the wheel spun for northern California where a prescribed fire set by the Bureau of Land Management got away to burn 23 homes.  Even as Los Alamos was burning, another prescribed fire was out of control in Grand Canyon National Park, fortunately in an area free of structures but requiring that the opening of the North Rim to visitors be postponed.


Politicians and the press have rushed to heap blame on the superintendent of Bandelier National Monument who it is easy enough now to see in retrospect set a prescribed fire in unfavorable weather conditions.  He has now been put on administrative leave but it’s an old story: blame the sergeants and let the generals go free.


It was national policy that set the stage for the Los Alamos fire.  If not this time, as local Los Alamos residents had already been informed, the forests around Los Alamos would still have had to burn another day, as long as their huge inventories of excess fuels remained.  The only way to remove these fuels now¾and the same holds true for many other places across the west¾will be to go in and cut the wood.


If the Clinton administration and the environmental movement continue to put a rigid ideology above common sense, we can expect to see many more fire disasters like Los Alamos in the future.


Robert H. Nelson is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  He is the author of  A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the US Forest Service (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).