The Nucleus of Disaster

At the core of the wildfire at Los Alamos was a planned burn--and the government was behind it

Shortly after noon on May 4, the National Weather Service station in Albuquerque, N.M., sent out the Haines Index, a measure of moisture and stability factors. In the arid brushland, a low Haines Index (a 2, for instance) is good: conditions are then unlikely to lead to wildfires. On May 4, however, the Haines Index was a potentially catastrophic 6, a situation predicted to last through the next day. Not a good day to start a fire. Especially in one of the dryest years on record.

But at 7:20 p.m. on May 4, the superintendent of the Bandelier National Monument, six...

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