Recriminations on Capitol Hill as wildfire continues to burn

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives on Tuesday unanimously called on the federal government to take responsibility for and reimburse victims of the wildfire that left more than 400 New Mexico families homeless.

''This wasn't an act of God. It was an act of man,'' said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. the measure's sponsor. ''And while it was not intentional that this fire rage out of control - the Park Service didn't mean for this to happen - they set the fire that destroyed 260 homes and the lives of 400 families.''

As the fire that also threatened the nation's first nuclear weapons laboratory continued to burn, lawmakers unleashed more scorching criticism of the federal land managers who started the blaze.

National Park Service officials at Bandelier National Monument started the fire May 4 to clear underbrush, but high winds quickly blew it out of control.

Preliminary results of a federal probe of the fire are expected Thursday, and the monument's superintendent has been suspended with pay. Last Friday, federal officials announced they would not start any more prescribed fires for 30 days while they reassess their fire policies.

Wilson's bill would not force the government to offer compensation, something Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has pledged to do. New Mexico's congressional delegation met Tuesday afternoon to discuss how to ensure fire victims are paid quickly.

''We're hoping there is not going to have to be lawsuits,'' said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

''We need to get a quick resolution for people,'' added Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Bingaman said he did not know if legislation was needed to set up the compensation process.

Domenici said the New Mexico lawmakers hoped to meet with Interior Department officials on Wednesday for a briefing on the investigation's preliminary results. Domenici and Bingaman also have asked Congress' General Accounting Office to investigate.

''Hopefully, we'll never have the same situation again, where we have 55 mph winds and lighting fires is a real no-no,'' said Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M.

Domenici, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, also said he planned to add to an emergency spending bill, $85 million for the Energy Department to make repairs and improve fire resistance at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Wilson said the lawmakers also want to make sure the government takes steps to prevent further environmental damage from ash and soil being washed away by rain. Domenici said ash from the fire was a foot deep in places.

The head of the House Resources Committee panel on forests said Tuesday she will hold two hearings on the federal government's policies on prescribed fires. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, said the Park Service was ''destructive and negligent'' in setting the fire.

''Rest assured, we will get to the bottom of this issue,'' Chenoweth-Hage said.

Tuesday afternoon, her panel endorsed a plan by Bingaman to spend up to $5 million a year on wildfire prevention projects in New Mexico.


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