Friday, July 1, 2011

New Mexico Fire Set To Be major In State History

Firefighters were certain Thursday they had blocked the advance of a wildfire that headed toward the Los Alamos nuclear lab and the nearby town that now sits empty for the second time in 11 years, even as they battled the fire that crept into a canyon that descends into the town and parts of the lab.

Of 1,000 firefighters on the scene, 200 were battling the blaze in Los Alamos Canyon, which 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 scheme of low-level radioactive waste. The World War II Manhattan Project urbanized 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, site manager for Los Alamos for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, which over sees the lab. "Most of the resources have been dug up."

Los Alamos Canyon runs through town and a portion of the northern end of the lab, where a weapons research nuclear reactor was situated until it was demolished in 2003. The fire burned upslope at least three miles from the sites and didn't pose an instant threat.

Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said the area in the canyon was burning had been before been thinned, providing a safe area for firefighters to attack it.

"Am I concerned? Yes. Do I feel threatened? No. But it's fire and it's dangerous," Tucker said.

In an evening briefing, Tucker said efforts that incorporated burning out brush and other fuels and laying down a line of foam down a grade to keep the fire up the canyon appeared to be successful.

"I'll feel enhanced about it in the morning," he said.

Tucker noted that conditions in the area are so dry that the fire, which had overdone nearly 145 square miles, 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.

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