Shortly after noon on May 4, the National Weather Service station in Albuquerque, N.M., sent out the Haines Index, a measure of moisture and stability factors. In the arid brushland, a low Haines Index (a 2, for instance) is good: conditions are then unlikely to lead to wildfires. On May 4, however, the Haines Index was a potentially catastrophic 6, a situation predicted to last through the next day. Not a good day to start a fire. Especially in one of the dryest years on record.
But at 7:20 p.m. on May 4, the superintendent of the Bandelier National Monument, six miles southwest of Los Alamos, began a controlled burn of 330 acres as a fire-prevention measure. And for the next week, the fires would not stop, first consuming dry grass, then Ponderosa pines, then, engorged to 32,000-plus acres, gobbling up hundreds of homes and singeing buildings at Los Alamos, birthplace of the atom bomb. The fires never came close to a building that holds drums of transuranic mixed waste and a metric ton of plutonium. No disastrous explosions occurred, but the air will be monitored for radioactivity. Meanwhile, noxious fumes wafted from the lead paint, rubber and plastics in burning cars and buildings. Some 20,000 people were evacuated from Los Alamos and surrounding towns. The damage estimates at week's end ranged from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, with $3 million spent on fire fighting. "It is a human disaster," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told TIME.
Unlike other wildfires--acts of God or of fickle thunderclaps or of anonymous careless cigarette smokers--the origins of this debacle are known. And the recriminations are starting. Roy Weaver, the Bandelier superintendent, was put on paid leave. He said he was not aware of the seven-hour-old National Weather report and had based his go-ahead for the burn on spot forecasts. The National Weather Service, however, insists it had faxed the report to Weaver's office. "This did not have to happen," says Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico. "I believe, based on common sense, that somebody made a mistake. At first blush, it seems it was the worst of times for a controlled burn." A General Accounting Office investigation is under way. Insurance claims and lawsuits are expected to mount.
The most grievous wound may be to the myth of Los Alamos' impregnability. Says Julie Collins, whose husband works at the lab: "People up here have the attitude that nothing could ever happen in Los Alamos. They think the government would never let anything happen. No kid is ever kidnapped, because they need us. I can't believe this is happening." Domenici agrees: "Nobody can quite figure out yet what this will do to the morale of the superscience team."