The Misunderstood Los Alamos Fire

Chatterbox received some intriguing entries to his first-ever “The-Conventional-Wisdom-Is-Wrong Challenge.” As explained in an earlier item, readers were invited to argue that the National Park Service was wise to start the “controlled” burn that led to the Los Alamos fire, even though weather conditions were dry and windy, and the Forest Service was wise to delay sending firefighters when the Park Service made its first, frantic 3:30 a.m. request for assistance. Chatterbox continues to believe that the conventional-wisdom view–both agencies blundered horribly–is correct, but he nonetheless salutes the many readers who used this occasion to stretch their forensic muscles. (Incidentally, for the Albuquerque Journal’s latest fire coverage, click here.) 

M. David Connelly, an American who resides in China, offered that the fire was set deliberately to persuade the Chinese that the United States’ bombing of its embassy during the Kosovo war was truly an accident. (Apparently the Chinese have a hard time believing that the U.S. government is capable of acting with such “lame-brained stupidity.”) Elisabeth Riba opined that the U.S. government quietly moved all the space-alien technology from nearby Area 51 and set fire to it to destroy the evidence. (“I don’t know whether you want to publish this,” she writes, “because I’m afraid some loons would believe it.”) A reader whose e-mail identifies him (or, more likely, her) as “hpd_ptnoyes” speculated that the fire was set deliberately by the Los Alamos scientists themselves to test “the relative flammability of plutonium and testosterone. … Once the dust settles, science may be able to determine the precise flash points of Park Service, Forest Service, and Department of Energy officials, as well as State and Local figureheads.” Glen Tomkins offered that the fire was in fact set by the vengeful Earth-goddess Gaia, because “[a]ny infestation of humans is an obvious blight upon the Earth, and Los Alamos and its infamous laboratories would be an especially target-rich environment. … Keep messing with Gaia, and she’ll have the FCC burning down Atlanta next (which, to a New Orleanian, is perhaps not a bad idea anyway).”

The trouble with all these entries is that they lack much in the way of verifiable fact (though they make up for that loss with imagination and cheeky humor). Here is the winning entry, from Tom Carroll (with honorable mention to Rob Carlisle, who submitted a similar argument):

Dumb to start a controlled fire when conditions are dry and windy? How so? Would one want to try starting a fire after the brush has been thoroughly soaked by a good rain? I don’t think so. The National Park Service can set its controlled fires only when the brush is dry. What’s more, a strong wind is necessary to allow the fire to spread quickly so the aim can be accomplished with minimal supervision and risk. Controlled fires cannot be allowed to smolder for days.And it certainly wasn’t dumber yet to delay in calling out the fire crews once the fire grew out of control. Those on the scene didn’t realize that the fire was growing out of control until 3:30 A.M. Dragging firefighters out of their beds at that hour is hardly a sound idea. Not only would they be dog-tired, thereby putting themselves at great risk, [but also] the middle of the night is no time to begin fighting a forest fire. Thoroughly analyzing the situation and positioning the resources at the scene requires daylight. It goes without saying that hindsight is always 20-20. But given what the National Park Service and its people knew at the time, their actions were prudent and the criticism leveled at their actions has been entirely unjustified.