Crews battle NM fire, which pushes into canyon
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - Firefighters were confident Thursday they had stopped the advance of a wildfire that headed toward the Los Alamos nuclear lab and the nearby town that now sits empty for the second time in 11 years, even as they battled the blaze that crept into a canyon that descends into the town and parts of the lab.
Of 1,000 firefighters on the scene, 200 were battling the blaze in Los Alamos Canyon, which 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, site manager for Los Alamos for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, which over sees the lab. “Most of the materials have been dug up.”
Los Alamos Canyon 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.
Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said the area in the canyon was burning had been previously been thinned, providing a safe area for firefighters to attack it.
“Am I concerned? Yes. Do I feel threatened? No. But it’s fire and it’s dangerous,” Tucker said.
In an evening briefing, Tucker said efforts that included burning out brush and other fuels and laying down a line of foam down a slope to keep the fire up the canyon appeared to be successful.
“I’ll feel better about it in the morning,” he said.
Tucker noted that conditions in the area are so dry that the fire, which had charred nearly 145 square miles, 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Despite the erratic nature of the blaze, fire officials remained confident that they could keep it from spreading onto the Los Alamos National Laboratory or into the town. They 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.
“Today is a good day for parts of this fire. It’s a bad day for other parts of this fire. Our hearts go out to the folks that are suffering the bad part,” Tucker 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. Fire officials believe the blaze will soon surpass the Dry Lakes fire, which burned more than 94,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in 2003.
Thunderstorms bringing erratic winds and some rain moved over the fire area Thursday afternoon, as crews braced for gusts of up to 40 mph that could spark spot fires ahead of the blaze.
Lab officials were trying to determine the extent to which experiments at the facility have been affected by a shutdown caused by the fast-moving fire. Lab Director Charles McMillan said teams will quickly figure out how things stand as soon as they’re able to return.