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Los Alamos Evacuates, Lab Closes as Fire Grows

San Francisco Chronicle via YellowBrix

June 28, 2011

Los Alamos, N.M. —

Thousands of residents fled the town that’s home to the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory as a rapidly growing wildfire approached, sending up towering plumes of smoke, raining down ash and charring the fringes of the sprawling lab.

The blaze, which began Sunday, destroyed 30 structures south of Los Alamos and forced the closure of the lab while stirring memories of a devastating fire in May 2000 that burned hundreds of homes and buildings.

“The hair on the back of your neck goes up,” Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said of first seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. "I saw that plume and I thought, ‘Oh my god here we go again.’ "

Tucker said the current blaze – which had grown to roughly 78 square miles by Monday – was the most active fire he had seen in his career.

Lab officials said radioactive material stored at various locations was safe from the flames.

The antinuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3 1/2 miles from a dump site where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a low-level radiation dump site in southern New Mexico.

Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval declined to comment on that assertion but did acknowledge that there is low-level waste stored in drums on lab property.

Traffic on Trinity Drive, one of the main roads out of Los Alamos, was bumper-to-bumper Monday as residents followed orders to leave.

Sam Kendericks said he knew the blaze was going to be bad when he first saw the plume Sunday.

“I was going to the hardware store and I did a U-turn as soon as I saw the plume come over the mountain. I told my wife to start packing. We were here 10 years ago. We had 20 minutes last time. So this time we’re ready,” he said. "

Flames approached the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed and tested the first atomic bomb during World War II. Lab and fire officials said they were confident that if the flames reached lab property, they would be able to protect its sensitive facilities.

The lab covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites.

The blaze started on private land about 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos and quickly grew. Flames and smoke could be seen from the outskirts of Albuquerque, about 80 miles away.


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