Congresswoman Blasts National Park Service for New Mexico Blaze

By Bob Melvin | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-ID), Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, blasted the Clinton Administration in general and the National Park Service in particular for starting a destructive, out-of-control forest fire in the Cerro Grande mountains on Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico.

"The fires burning today (Thursday) in New Mexico provide the nation with the worst example of federal agency mismanagement of the public trust. The National Park Service is acting like children playing with matches," Chenoweth-Hage said.

A federal firefighting expert in Los Alamos said on Thursday that a "prescribed fire burn" of the national forest in that area went out-of-control when unexpected winds kicked up. Tom Zimmerman of the National Park Service said his federal agency "has experienced some severe wind events that were not totally forecasted" and added that wind "was the variable that killed us on this one."

National Park Service officials deliberately set the fire to clear out brush that might fuel bigger fires. The result: the city of Los Alamos has been evacuated, more than 200 homes have burned, President Clinton has declared the city a federal disaster area, and the Los Alamos National (Nuclear) Laboratory has been closed since Monday. Lab officials said explosives and radioactive material have been secured in fireproof storage areas.

The out-of-control fire is expected to focus national attention on the wisdom of using "prescribed burns."

"The Clinton Administration doesn't seem to understand that because of its inaction in preventing and stopping catastrophic fires, forests burn, fish and wildlife and their habitats are lost, people's homes are destroyed, and their lives are placed in jeopardy," Chenoweth-Hage said.

The Republican Congresswoman from Idaho has been outspoken in warning about the growing risk of catastrophic forest fires in the US.

One year ago, a Government Accounting Office study requested by Chenoweth-Hage showed that 39 million acres of national forest lands are at serious risk of catastrophic fires.

The risk has grown, Chenoweth-Hage claims, because of the Clinton Administration's refusal to remove dead and diseased timber from forests. Decmposing trees, she said, add to the fuel load in forests.

In fact, Chenoweth-Hage has sponsored House legislation (HR-1522) to allow communities to be more pro-active in removing hazardous fuels from forests that present a fire threat.

"With 18,000 people evacuated in New Mexico, it's time we held the Clinton Administration accountable, and it's time for Congress to take a closer look at what is going wrong with the management of government-controlled lands. The federal agencies have demonstrated they cannot do their jobs and it's time we get someone who can," Chenoweth-Hage said.

"Since becoming Chairman of the Subcommittee," Chenoweth-Hage added, "I have held numerous hearings on federal agency fire fighting, fire prevention, and related issues. Through those efforts, my Subcommittee has uncovered many serious problems.

"Even before the Cerro Grande fire, I had begun planning a hearing on the Clinton Administration's over-reliance on 'prescribed fire burns.' Now, in continuation of our investigation, my Subcommittee is in the process of scheduling that hearing as soon as possible," Chenoweth-Hage said.