- Associated Press - Monday, June 27, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. | Authorities ordered Los Alamos evacuated Monday as a fast-growing and unpredictable wildfire bore down on the northern New Mexico town and its sprawling nuclear laboratory.

The blaze, which began Sunday, already had destroyed a number of homes south of town. It also forced the closure of the nation’s pre-eminent nuclear lab while stirring memories of a devastating blaze more than a decade ago that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in the area.

Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said the blaze Sunday night was the most active he had seen in his career, forcing residents near Cochiti Mesa and Las Conchas to flee with “nothing but the shirts on their back.”

He said a 44,000-acre blaze had destroyed at least 30 structures, but it wasn’t clear how many were homes.

The fire has the potential to double or triple in size, Chief Tucker said, and firefighters had no idea which direction the winds exceeding 60 mph would take it.

“We are preparing for the fire to go in any direction,” Chief Tucker said.

It was not clear how many people were being evacuated. Nearly 18,000 people live in Los Alamos and the bedroom community of White Rock, which is not being ordered to evacuate.

Los Alamos National Laboratory was closed Monday as the blaze burned within a mile of its southern edge.

Officials said that more than 100 residents evacuated their homes south of town Sunday as the fire swelled to 68 square miles and moved to the lab’s southern edge.

The lab, where scientists developed and tested the first atomic bomb during World War II, activated its emergency operations center overnight and cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.

Officials said all hazardous and radioactive materials were being protected.

The blaze started on private land about 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos. Flames and smoke could be seen from the outskirts of Albuquerque, about 80 miles away.

On Monday morning, the Pajarito plateau upon which the lab sits was awash in a thick haze with a charred stench.

On the southwestern edge of the plateau, white smoke filled the canyons above Cochiti reservoir. On the north end, heavy black columns of smokes were rising in the air.

Cars headed down the two-lane highway that snakes from Los Alamos to Pojoaque were stuffed with belongings as residents fled the blaze.

The fire was eerily similar to one of the most destructive blazes in New Mexico’s history. That fire, the Cerro Grande, burned about 47,000 acres — 73 square miles — in May 2000 and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. About 400 homes and 100 buildings on lab property were destroyed in that fire.

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