Friday, July 1, 2011

Los Alamos fire set to become state's biggest ever

Crews Battle NM Fire, Which Pushes Into Canyon

PHOTO: Firefighters walk through smoke from the Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos, N.M.,, June 30, 2011.

Firefighters battled a 145 square-mile fire burning in a canyon leading to parts of the Los Alamos nuclear lab and an evacuated town, even as confidence rose that both would be spared from the flames.
Some of the 1,000 firefighters at the scene lit backfires Thursday to remove brush and other fuels as well as coat a canyon slope with a thick line of fire retardant foam.
"For Los Alamos, it's been a great day. Everything is holding," Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said Thursday evening. "I'm very confident, after tonight that once they get done with this, this burn out, that the lower end is safe."
Los Alamos Canyon 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 over sees 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.
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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.
Tucker said the area in the canyon was burning had been previously been 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.
Conditions in the area are so dry that the fire 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.
Firefighters, confident they can keep both the lab and town safe from the fire, made progress on some fronts along its southern border Thursday even as the fire pushed northward toward land considered sacred by a Native American more.

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