The Heat Is Online

New Mexico Scorched by Largest Wildfire Ever

Los Alamos fire now New Mexico's biggest ever

Recent wildfires could be 'at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we've seen since the last Ice Age,' geologist says

msnbc.com staff and news service reports, July 1, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M.  — The fire threatening the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory spread overnight to nearly 104,000 acres, or 162 square miles, making it the largest in state history.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory is closed because of the fire, and the nearby community of Los Alamos is evacuated. But crews remain confident they can keep the blaze from spreading to the lab and the town.

Some of the more than 1,200 firefighters assigned to the fire are working to bolster lines along the lab's southern edge and the community's western side.

"We're seeing fire behavior we've never seen down here, and it's really aggressive," Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas Tucker told reporters Thursday.

The fire was still just three percent contained, but Tucker also said he was "very confident" the fire would "burn out" before reaching Los Alamos.

"For Los Alamos, it's been a great day. Everything is holding," Tucker said Thursday evening.

Fire managers are bracing for conditions to get hotter and drier later Friday.

Three of the state's largest forest fires have occurred within the past 10 years. The previous record was set in 2003 by a fire that burned through 94,000 acres of Gila National Forest.

Grant Meyer — a geologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who studies the interaction of climate and weathering processes — told the Christian Science Monitor that "these big, severe fires are not unprecedented" in hot, dry periods during the past 10,000 years.

"But recent experience down here suggests that what we're looking at in the last few decades is at least as severe and maybe more so than anything we've seen since the last Ice Age," he added.

Warming climate

He said there were a number of reasons, including a buildup of fuel for the fires due to forestry practices that emphasize fire suppression.

"But part of it as well — and the data are very good on this — it's climatic warming," he said.

A decline in the annual snow pack has reduced the region's water supply and rising average temperatures have lengthened the fire season and dried out the fuel, the Monitor said.

According to data published jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the University of Nebraska, New Mexico, much of Texas — which has had a record fire season — and the southeastern U.S. are in the throes of extreme to exceptional drought conditions.

Part of the fire on Thursday was in the Los Alamos Canyon, which 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 oversees 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.

Fire burns sacred land

Tucker said the area in the canyon where the fire was burning had been previously 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.

While firefighters are confident they can keep both the lab and town safe from the fire, other areas were less fortunate with the fire's northern front burning sacred Native American sites and threatening the town of Santa Clara Pueblo.

"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 Associated Press contributed to this report.

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