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California and the West

Los Alamos Lab, Town Evacuated

Fire: Wind-driven blaze engulfs hundreds of homes as authorities rush to get 14,000 residents out. Nuclear materials at weapons facility pose no explosion risk, officials say.

May 11, 2000|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Federal and state authorities rushed Wednesday to evacuate 14,000 people from Los Alamos, home of the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratory, shortly before a nightmarish forest fire roared into town and began burning at least 200 homes.

More than 800 weary firefighters were forced to retreat from the fast-moving Cerro Grande blaze as fierce winds whipped the inferno into a firestorm that threatened to engulf a hospital, a high school and other residential areas. At 10:30 p.m., a county spokesman said one in four homes in the city were in flames.

U.S. Department of Energy officials said that plutonium and other nuclear materials are stored safely in fortified fireproof facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory, just outside town, and that the fire posed no risk of releasing radiation or causing an explosion. High explosives are stored underground in concrete bunkers.

"The nuclear materials are all safe and secure," said Tracy Loughead, an energy department spokeswoman, at an emergency center outside Los Alamos. She said that several spot fires, caused by blowing embers, were extinguished on lab property Wednesday, but that the main blaze had skirted the lab and emergency crews were guarding the facility.

The Los Alamos lab is responsible for the design, development and safe stewardship of 85% of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It has been closed since Monday as the fire, which started as a controlled burn to clear brush in a nearby national forest, roared steadily closer.

President Clinton declared the town a disaster area. The decision clears the way for special federal assistance, including temporary housing, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This is an act of Mother Nature that couldn't be any worse," Gov. Gary Johnson told reporters after touring the eerily empty town with his wife in midafternoon and vainly trying to stomp out a lawn fire until a "wall of fire" forced them to retreat.

"Los Alamos is in the way of the fire," Johnson said. "From the looks of it, it just couldn't be worse."

Hours later, it was. Once darkness fell, dramatic television pictures showed billowing flames jumping from home to home and building to building in the city's leafy western subdivisions. A handful, then a dozen, then scores of homes soon were ablaze.

County officials said the fierce flames and heat had forced firefighters to retreat, and they watched helplessly as the fire spread unchecked. Officials said they and other emergency crews that rushed to the scene Wednesday would have to wait until the winds died.

"There's nothing we can do now," said Jim Paxon, a Fire Department spokesman.

No injuries were reported, officials said. More than 160 National Guard troops were sent to the area to help prevent looting and assist in the evacuation, spokesman Tom Koch said.

"Everything that can be done is being done," Johnson said. "The resources are here."

A bumper-to-bumper stream of heavily packed cars, trucks and other vehicles crawled down narrow, winding roads out of Los Alamos all afternoon to escape the flames as a choking shroud of gray smoke and heavy ash blanketed the rugged mountain region of northern New Mexico.

Officials also ordered the evacuation of western areas of Espanola, a smaller town about 20 miles northeast of Los Alamos. Local officials said flames were visible several miles from the town.

Earlier Wednesday, grimy-faced officials pulled all 800 firefighters off the line and grounded aerial "slurry bombers" and helicopters that dump fire retardants as gusting winds fanned the flames and sent thick plumes of smoke miles into the air.

The National Weather Service warned that the winds, which gusted from 35 to 50 mph Wednesday, are likely to increase Thursday. Hundreds of firefighters also battled two other major wildfires fed by howling winds elsewhere in the state after an unusually dry spring.

Emergency officials ordered the evacuation at 1:30 p.m. and said that they had emptied the town of all but a few diehard residents by nightfall. The town serves as the bedroom community for the Los Alamos lab, which was secretly built during World War II to develop and build the first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project.

Police, sheriff's deputies and other law enforcement officials went door to door Wednesday afternoon urging people to pack up and leave immediately. Police cars patrolled with loudspeakers blaring: "It's time to evacuate. It's time to evacuate."

Emergency shelters were set up throughout the day in a casino bingo hall, schools, churches and other facilities in White Rock and nearby towns. The National Guard opened armories in Santa Fe, Taos and Espanola. The Red Cross called for volunteers and financial contributions. Several hotels offered free or discount rooms.

The Rio Arriba County Fairgrounds in Albuquerque, 70 miles south of Los Alamos, offered to stable livestock and other animals from affected ranches. Animal shelters and private homes offered to take in pets.

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