SANTA FE, N.M. -- Sitting in a dimly lit bar, watching federal officials explain the mistakes that led to a devastating wildfire, Danne DeBacker had one response: Mistakes? No kidding.
''They're just saying, 'Here's what happened.' We already know what happened -- the damned forest burned down,'' said DeBacker, whose home in the northwest part of Los Alamos was destroyed.
''I'm sad, not just for my house, but for the forest,'' he said. ''Before these little black sticks were standing around here, we had a really pristine forest.''
A preliminary report released Thursday by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt concluded that National Park Service officials who started the fire May 4 to clear brush did not follow proper procedures and did not have enough fire crews on hand to keep it under control.
''It's clear there were large mistakes of agency oversight,'' Babbitt said.
''The causal chain of this fire is quite complex. I would liken it to what happens on a mountainside when a rock is dislodged,'' he said. That one rock can create a ''cascading series of events.''
Set at the nearby Bandelier National Monument, the blaze was driven out of control by wind gusting to more than 50 mph. It forced 25,000 people to flee, scorched more than 47,000 acres, left 405 families homeless and damaged the storied Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory. The fire was 70 percent contained Thursday, and officials said they hoped to have it completely corralled by late Monday.
Babbitt and federal lawmakers pledged to work on legislation to pay all fire victims for losses not covered by insurance or emergency assistance. The White House also said the government will accept responsibility and take care of those who lost homes and businesses.
The report found a ''number of critical deviations from both the prescribed fire plan and standard fire practices'' -- including not putting firefighters on standby before starting the fire.
Babbitt was asked on NBC's ''Today'' show this morning whether there was criminal negligence in setting the fires. ''You don't prosecute people for making mistakes,'' he said. ''The answer is an emphatic no.''
''It was a systemic failure in the Park Service. I think we are going to have to go back as a result of this investigation and revamp the fire program from A to Z,'' he said. ''We owe that to the American people.''
The report said Bandelier employee Mike Powell, who directly oversaw the prescribed burn, notified firefighting dispatchers in Santa Fe the morning of May 4 that the burn was to take place that evening. A dispatcher expressed concern because the Forest Service had suspended prescribed burns as a result of high winds and dry weather.
The investigation found that the plan was not ''substantively reviewed'' before it was approved by Bandelier Superintendent Roy Weaver, who has taken responsibility for the blaze and been placed on leave.
''There's a tendency to rubber-stamp decisions made by people at the field level,'' Babbitt said. ''That is an unacceptable paradigm.''
Weaver has declined interviews.
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