LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - With firefighters bracing for another day of strong, erratic winds, a wildfire near the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory and a northern New Mexico community was poised to become the largest forest fire in state history.
By Thursday afternoon, the flames had reached sacred Native American sites to the north. But fire officials remained confident that the fire would not spread onto the Los Alamos National Laboratory or into the town of Los Alamos.
Crews lit brush to create a 10-mile-long burned-out area between the fire and the facility that created the first atomic bomb.
“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,” Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said.
Resources were shifted to keep the fire from moving down a canyon toward Santa Clara Pueblo, about seven miles away. Above the canyon on Chicoma Mountain, sacred areas were burning, fire operations chief Jerome Macdonald said.
The fire has chewed up tens of thousands of acres a day since it started Sunday, charring a total of nearly 145 square miles, or 92,735 acres. 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.
They were bracing for 40 mph gusts as spot fires continued to pop up Thursday afternoon.
As firefighters held the line along the lab’s southern border, thousands of residents remained out of their homes, and lab officials were trying to determine the extent of how 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.
Though the physical risk to the lab from the fire apparently had lessened Thursday, McMillan said “the laboratory is not just a bunch of buildings. It’s not just a bunch of equipment. The laboratory is the people of the laboratory. That is the fundamental asset that this laboratory has and those people live all over northern New Mexico,” he said.
McMillian was concerned that some employees lost homes in the mountains south and west of Los Alamos and others with homes near Santa Clara would be threatened as the fire moved north.
The lab has been closed since Monday, when the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas _ 12,000 people in all _ were evacuated. There was no word on when it would reopen, but it was expected to remain idle at least through Friday.
Officials said the Los Alamos National Laboratory has some 10,000 experiments running at the same time that have been put on hold.
“We have a range of projects, some of them have shorter time deliverable, some of them are years to decades,” said McMillan, who last month took over management of the lab that sits atop desert mesas.