The Heat Is Online

Los Alamos Shut Down by Drought-Driven Fires

Wildfire keeps Los Alamos nuclear lab closed

Reuters News Service, Planet Ark, May 10, 2000

LOS ALAMOS - Firefighters used bulldozers to clear swaths of forest on Tuesday in a major push to seal off a forest fire that kept a major U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory closed and threatened a nearby town.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the world's first atomic bomb was created in 1945, was closed for a second straight day as the Cerro Grande fire raged just across a highway from one section of the sprawling facility. Officials said the laboratory would be closed again on Wednesday.

The fire, which has raged for five days after being sparked inadvertently by the U.S. Forest Service, also posed a danger to the neighbouring town of Los Alamos.

More than 600 firefighters burned brush ahead of the blaze and cleared swaths of forest with bulldozers to deprive the fire of new fuel in an effort to ring the wildfire with a burn-free zone before weather conditions worsen, as they are forecast to do on Wednesday.

"We're calling today the big push," said Fire Information Officer Jim Paxon. "Tomorrow (Wednesday) we're expecting bigger winds, higher temperatures and lower humidity so the time to get this fire is now," Paxon added.

Only a skeleton staff of 500 people out of a work force of close to 12,000 remained at the Los Alamos laboratory, which covers 43 square miles (112 square km) in the sparsely settled Juarez Mountains of northern New Mexico.


Officials said the laboratory's high explosives and plutonium were safely sealed in fireproof steel and concrete bunkers. The plutonium facility is "miles away" from the wildfire and the area around it has been cleared of trees and other combustible material, laboratory director John Browne said.

Firefighters were holding the blaze at a standstill along Highway 501, which borders the laboratory's western edge.

Some of the U.S. government's most-secret nuclear weapons research has been conducted at Los Alamos. But its role of developing nuclear weapons changed in the 1990s when the United States stopped nuclear testing, and now the facility's main charge is to ensure that the nuclear weapons stockpile stays in working order.

Browne said this was the first time the laboratory had been closed due to a forest fire.

With 3,365 acres (1,362 hectares) already consumed, Paxon said he expected several more thousand acres (hectares) would be gone by the end of the day due to preventive burning.

"We have to seal this fire off and keep it from crossing Los Alamos canyon. Otherwise, it'll burn right into the city site," he said.

The town of Los Alamos, which borders the lab, has evacuated 500 homes on the west side of town and closed schools due to heavy smoke.

The fire began last Thursday when fires deliberately set to clear scrub bush in Bandelier National Monument, the site of ancient Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings, burned out of control as winds picked up to 40 mph (64 kph).

U.S. Forest Service officials have defended their decision to burn underbrush, saying it was carefully planned and a necessary tool for forest management.

Gov. Gary Johnson on Monday declared a state of emergency for Los Alamos and counties in southern New Mexico where another wildfire has scorched 5,400 acres (2,160 hectares) and destroyed three homes. No serious injuries have been reported in either fire.

Story by Zelie Pollon

Los Alamos lab closes as forest fire looms

Planet Ark, Reuters News Service, May 9, 2000

LOS ALAMOS - The Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico was closed down on Monday and hundreds of people were evacuated from nearby homes as a forest fire raged perilously close to the top secret U.S. facility.

Public schools in the city of Los Alamos were closed and about 500 homes were evacuated as a precaution. There were no reports of injuries or damage to buildings but authorities said it might take several more days to control the blaze.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director John Browne said that by Monday afternoon the fire was just 200 yards from the edge of the laboratory's huge grounds but still several miles from the laboratory's plutonium facility. "The fire is close enough that it concerns me," he told a news conference.

Brown said he had decided to close the laboratory down on Sunday evening out of concern for the safety of the 10,000 to 12,000 people who work their each day. Except for emergency personnel, staff were advised to stay at home through local media reports.

Officials said some 500 people drawn from local, state and federal agencies were battling the blaze with the aid of fire trucks, bulldozers and aircraft. Drought and high winds have helped the fire spread but additional manpower and hardware is due to arrive on Tuesday.

Efforts were concentrated on preventing the fire from crossing Highway 501 which runs along the western edge of the laboratory's grounds. "Hopefully in three or four days we can call it contained, but that's a long way from calling it controlled," said U.S. Forest Service official Joe Paxton.

Roy Weaver, superintendent of nearby Bandelier National Monument, a national park with ancient Pueblo Indian cliff houses, said the fire had started on Thursday as a controlled burn to clear the area of material that could cause a wildfire. "The fire was a little more energetic than we anticipated and the winds were unpredictable," he told reporters.

Browne said the laboratory's plutonium facility was located on the northeast side of the complex, far away from the western perimeter that was threatened by the fire, adding that there was very little material to fuel a fire in its vicinity.

There was also explosive materials on the laboratory's grounds, but these were stored safely in underground bunkers made of concrete and steel, he said.

Authorities said they had evacuated 500 homes in western Los Alamos and that they might evacuate a similar number in the northern part of town, depending on the wind direction.

Those who had already been forced to leave their homes were offered temporary accommodation at a Red Cross shelter and a church in the neighbouring community of White Rock.

Gov. Gary Johnson declared a state of emergency, making the area eligible for extra resources to fight the fire. The laboratory, located among forests in the Jemez mountains of northern New Mexico, was set up in 1943 as part of the Manhattan project to create the first atomic bomb.

More recently it has been at the centre of U.S. government allegations of espionage against Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born nuclear scientist who worked at the facility.

Story by Zelie Pollon