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The prescribed burn that engulfed Los Alamos, New Mexico, and nearby towns in mid-May shows the importance of responsible forest management for communities near forested public and private lands.

Using an approved plan, National Park officials ignited the "Upper Frijoles" prescribed burn May 4 at Bandelier National Monument. But the renamed Cerro Grande fire quickly spread beyond its designated boundaries, burning 47,500 acres and destroying more than 200 homes. By the time the fire was contained on May 24, officials had evacuated 20,000 residents and thousands of trees had been damaged or destroyed.

Before the last tree burned, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt appointed a Fire Investigation/Fact-Finding Team. Federal personnel "failed to properly plan and implement" the prescribed burn, the group concluded, including failure to use a "go-no go" checklist, evaluate fire conditions near the burn area, and follow safety policies for firefighters and the public.

The fire was a case of "good people making bad decisions," said Joe Stutler, a Forest Service fire operations specialist and member of the investigation's fact-finding team. "The planning was not reviewed by the right people, and some rules were broken. If the go-no go checklist had been done, the burn never would have been ignited."

But Stutler, who specializes in wildland urban interface fire problems, also said the burn could be representative of future fires.

"It's a classic example of the 40 million acres of fire-adapted ecosystem that are going to burn," Stutler said, referring to a January 2000 Forest Service study that predicted burning in areas where fire has been suppressed for years.

Although conditions vary from place to place, the West generally has "too much dead fuel" because forests are overstocked, often with the wrong species, Stutler said. Bob Cermak, a former Forest Service deputy regional forester and a fire historian, said the challenge stems from our fire and forestry practices on the West's second- and third-growth forests.

"The reason for heavy fuels is not fire suppression," Cermak said. "It's because the trees are growing back the way nature wants them to grow. Nature is not interested in ordering the forest."

With the forest acting as a tinderbox, agencies and private landowners should undertake prescribed burns with the utmost care and consider other, safer options such as mowing, removing understory brush, and using machines to remove trees that increase the dead-to-live ratio. In addition, federal agencies must work harder to educate the public about responsible forest management, Stutler said.
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Title Annotation:prescribed burning accident investigation in New Mexico
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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