Monday, July 4, 2011

Los Alamos Evacuation Order Lifted; 12,000 Go Home

A dash of summer rain gave a boost to firefighters battling a huge forest fire near Los Alamos, giving authorities enough assurance Sunday to allow about 12,000 people to return home for the first time in nearly a week.

Residents rolled into town, honking their horns and waving to firefighters as the word got out that the roadblocks were lifted and the slender two-lane highway cut into the side of a mesa leading to Los Alamos was open. They had fled en masse last week as the fast-moving fire approached the city and its nuclear laboratory.

"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" yelled Amy Riehl, an assistant manager at the Smith's grocery store, as she inwards to help keep the store open for returning residents.

"It's scary, but all of the possessions here this time, they were ready. They did a magnificent job," said Michael Shields, his eyes tearing up as he returned to his apartment in the heart of the town.

The town was last evacuated because of a overwhelming fire in 2000 that destroyed 200 homes and several businesses and damaged utilities and other county enterprises. This time, residents returned to a town that is totally intact, although the fire scorched 63 homes west of town along with 37 outbuildings and other structures.

The fire erupted June 26 in northern New Mexico when a tree fell onto power lines, fire officials announced Sunday. Fueled by an extremely dry season in the Southwest and erratic winds, the fire has mushroomed to 189 square miles and was 19 percent limited as of Sunday night.

Although the threat to Los Alamos and the nation's premier nuclear research lab had agreed, the wildfire raging was threatening sacred sites of American Indian tribes.

Hundreds of firefighters were working to hold the fire as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and endangered other pueblos on the Pajarito Plateau.

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