LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - Firefighters battled a 145 square-mile fire burning in a canyon leading to parts of the Los Alamos nuclear lab and an evacuated town, even as confidence rose that both would be spared from the flames.
Some of the 1,000 firefighters at the scene lit backfires Thursday to remove brush and other fuels as well as coat a canyon slope with a thick line of fire retardant foam.
“For Los Alamos, it’s been a great day. Everything is holding,” Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said Thursday evening. “I’m very confident, after tonight that once they get done with this, this burn out, that the lower end is safe.”
Los Alamos Canyon runs past runs past the old Manhattan Project site in town and a 1940s era dump site where workers are near the end of a clean-up project of low-level radioactive waste. The World War II Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb, and workers from the era dumped hazardous and radioactive waste in trenches along six acres atop the mesa where the town sits.
“The threat is pretty limited,” said Kevin Smith, the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration site manager for Los Alamos, which over sees the lab. “Most of the materials have been dug up.”
Los Alamos Canyon also runs through town and a portion of the northern end of the lab, where a weapons research nuclear reactor was located until it was demolished in 2003.
The fire burned upslope at least three miles from the sites and didn’t pose an immediate threat. Fire had crept to within a half mile of homes in town.
Tucker said the area in the canyon was burning had been previously been thinned, providing a safe area for firefighters to attack it.
Residents of Los Alamos, who fled the town earlier in the week under an evacuation order, wouldn’t be allowed back home until Sunday at the earliest, Tucker said.
Conditions in the area are so dry that the fire was burning downed trees that were scorched in the huge Cerro Grande fire in 2000. The fire also burned through moisture-rich aspen trees to push into the canyon.
Firefighters, confident they can keep both the lab and town safe from the fire, made progress on some fronts along its southern border Thursday even as the fire pushed northward toward land considered sacred by a Native American tribe.
“This is a fire like we’ve never seen before,” Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
He said his people are devastated by the news coming in from the front lines of the firefighting efforts _ cultural sites destroyed, forest resources lost and plants and animals that the pueblo’s 2,800 residents depend on gone.
“We cried when we saw Mother Nature doing what she was doing to our canyon area. We were helpless,” he said.
The fire has chewed up tens of thousands of acres a day since it started Sunday, becoming among the largest forest fires in New Mexico history. Crews have contained only 3 percent of the fire.View Entire Story
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