Prescribed fire burns out of control

This satellite photograph shows a large wildfire burning near Los Alamos, N.M., on May 10. National Park Service personnel set the fire May 4 at Bandelier National Monument to clear underbrush that could fuel natural forest fires.

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

The following day, high winds whipped the controlled burn into a wildfire. The inferno, dubbed the Cerro Grande fire, consumed more than 46,000 acres and 235 homes. Flames scorched the Los Alamos National Laboratory but caused no structural damage to the research buildings, says Rick Malaspina, a spokesperson for the University of California, which manages the lab. However, the fire destroyed buildings of historical interest that housed the Los Alamos portion of the Manhattan Project, which led to the first atomic bomb.

The Cerro Grande fire is the second park service prescribed burn to become unmanageable this year. The so-called Outlet fire burned more than 9,900 acres along the Grand Canyon’s north rim in Arizona.

The two fires have fanned debate over the federal prescribed-fire policy. On May 12, U.S. officials announced a 30-day suspension of prescribed fires in the western half of the country.”I don’t see our policy changing,” says National Forest Service spokesman Joe Walsh, based in Washington, D.C. He adds that fire is a natural and necessary part of forest life.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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