"That was one of the major errors," said New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
The catastrophe began May 4, when officials in Bandelier National Monument set a fire to clear underbrush. That fire got out of control, and by May 7, officials had decided to set another fire to help contain the first.
But winds estimated at 50 mph or stronger blew that second fire out of control, and it eventually burned 48,000 acres, destroyed more than 200 homes and burned part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, America's premier nuclear weapons lab. Federal officials estimate the fire damage at $1 billion.
No one on the Park Service fire team asked the National Weather Service for an updated forecast before setting that fateful second fire, GAO investigator Alan Dominicci told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The official in charge of firefighting efforts later said he would not have set the second fire if he had known that winds were picking up, Dominicci said.
"They thought they had the fire under control," Dominicci said. "In fact, they were writing a press release that the fire had been contained when the winds blew up and blew it out of control."
The GAO is an investigative arm of Congress.
Park Service officials have admitted the wildfire was their fault and apologized. Bandelier Superintendent Roy Weaver retired early this month because of the fire.
A Park Service disciplinary panel is scheduled to recommend by Monday whether any more of the 68 employees involved in the fire should be punished, Park Service Director Robert Stanton said Thursday.
The panel, called a board of inquiry, will make its recommendations to the Park Service regional office in Denver. Affected employees could appeal any discipline to the director's office, Stanton told reporters during a break in the Senate hearing.
Several senators said they were angered by the Park Service's actions, as well as a GAO report's conclusion that Park officials decided not to cut a firebreak with bulldozers and chain saws because of a policy to minimize costs and environmental damage during firefighting.
"I intend to pursue the people who are (responsible for the fire) and hold them accountable," said the committee chairman, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. "There's no room for confusion on the fireline on who takes precedence, people or resources."
By Matt Kelley