NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Fires -- Present And Prospective -- Put Park Service In Hot Water

May 31, 2000

The New Mexico wildfire intended as a "controlled burn" set by the National Park Service may have consequences far beyond the tens of thousands of destroyed forest acres and the 400 homes gutted. The fire is reported to have inflicted considerably more damage at the Los Alamos National Laboratory than officials initially acknowledged, according to reports.

Moreover, many buildings in America's national parks are firetraps, according to federal investigators.

In the case of the Los Alamos facility, here are some of federal officials' current worst fears:

  • Erosion caused by the fire will probably unleash toxic and radiological contaminants into the Rio Grande River.
  • About six former dump sites may release low-level nuclear and chemical waste into streams and rivers when annual rains begin in July, because the fire destroyed grasses and brush that had previously held the contaminants in check.
  • A spokesman for a federal interagency task force, the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team, says that computer models project erosion that "could be 100 times normal" this summer from heavy rains and lack of ground cover.

The General Accounting Office says in a report just released that the National Park Service has done little to fix known fire safety problems elsewhere.

  • Fire extinguishers go for years without inspection, a hotel has antiquated alarms and few fire escapes, and fire inspections are overlooked in a fire-plagued park, the GAO charged.
  • Although the GAO surveyed only six Park Service sites, officials said that if they had looked at 200 parks "the report wouldn't change."
  • The Park Service -- which is exempt from federal, state and local fire-safety codes -- had more than 1,400 building fires in the past decade.

Capitol Hill sources say the Park Service spends money buying new parks rather than maintaining existing ones.

Sources: Bob Drogan, "Los Alamos Fire Could Contaminate Rio Grande," and Seth Borenstein, "Fire Hazards Abound in Many National Parks," both in the Washington Post, May 28, 2000.


Browse more articles on Environment Issues