Wildfire near NM nuclear lab poised to become largest forest fire in state’s history

With firefighters bracing for another day of strong, erratic winds, a wildfire near the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory and a northern New Mexico community was poised to become the largest forest fire in state history.

The sun sets over the Jemez Mountains behind the town of Los Alamos as smoke from the Las Conchas fire turns the sun red on Tuesday.

The sun sets over the Jemez Mountains behind the town of Los Alamos as smoke from the Las Conchas fire turns the sun red on Tuesday.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — With firefighters bracing for another day of strong, erratic winds, a wildfire near the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory and a northern New Mexico community was poised to become the largest forest fire in state history.

By Thursday afternoon, the flames had reached sacred Native American sites to the north. But fire officials remained confident that the fire would not spread onto the Los Alamos National Laboratory or into the town of Los Alamos.

Crews lit brush to create a 10-mile-long burned-out area between the fire and the facility that created the first atomic bomb.

“Today is a good day for parts of this fire. It’s a bad day for other parts of this fire. Our hearts go out to the folks that are suffering the bad part,” Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said.

Resources were shifted to keep the fire from moving down a canyon toward Santa Clara Pueblo, about seven miles away. Above the canyon on Chicoma Mountain, sacred areas were burning, fire operations chief Jerome Macdonald said.

The fire has chewed up tens of thousands of acres a day since it started Sunday, charring a total of nearly 145 square miles, or 92,735 acres. Crews have contained only 3 per cent of the fire.

Fire officials believe the blaze will soon surpass the Dry Lakes fire, which burned more than 94,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in 2003.

They were bracing for 40 mph gusts as spot fires continued to pop up Thursday afternoon.

As firefighters held the line along the lab’s southern border, thousands of residents remained out of their homes, and lab officials were trying to determine the extent of how experiments at the facility have been affected by a shutdown caused by the fast-moving fire.

Lab Director Charles McMillan said teams will quickly figure out how things stand as soon as they’re able to return.

Though the physical risk to the lab from the fire apparently had lessened Thursday, McMillan said “the laboratory is not just a bunch of buildings. It’s not just a bunch of equipment. The laboratory is the people of the laboratory. That is the fundamental asset that this laboratory has and those people live all over northern New Mexico,” he said.

McMillian was concerned that some employees lost homes in the mountains south and west of Los Alamos and others with homes near Santa Clara would be threatened as the fire moved north.

The lab has been closed since Monday, when the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas — 12,000 people in all — were evacuated. There was no word on when it would reopen, but it was expected to remain idle at least through Friday.

Officials said the Los Alamos National Laboratory has some 10,000 experiments running at the same time that have been put on hold.

“We have a range of projects, some of them have shorter time deliverable, some of them are years to decades,” said McMillan, who last month took over management of the lab that sits atop desert mesas.

The delayed projects include experiments run on two supercomputers, the Roadrunner and Cielo.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s three national laboratories — Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore — all share computing time on Cielo, which is among the world’s fastest computers.

Also delayed are studies on how climate change affects ocean currents, and on extending the life of 1960s-era B61 nuclear bombs.

The lab also works on such topics as renewable energy and particle physics, solar flares, forensics on terrorist attacks, and studying the AIDS virus at the molecular level to help scientists develop strategies for developing vaccines.

On Monday, about an acre of lab property burned, raising concerns about possible contamination from material stored or buried on lab grounds. As a precaution, the government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the lab. Samples analyzed so far from some of the lab’s monitors show nothing abnormal in the smoke.

Lab authorities described the monitoring from the air as a precaution, and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some in surrounding communities feared.

“The nuclear materials are secure,” said Penn State University nuclear engineering professor Barry Scheetz, who has served on National Academy of Sciences nuclear review boards and has been to Los Alamos several times. “There’s multiple redundancy in the protection of this material.”

Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste — gloves, tools, even paper notes and other contaminated items — about two miles from the fire.

Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums, and that the steel containers can in any case withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of shutting down the town was already weighing on the minds of Los Alamos officials and business owners.

The lab’s employees account for up to 90 per cent of the town’s commerce, said Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, as well as the local economic development group.

Holsapple did not have an estimate on what the impact would be from the latest fire.

Following a major wildfire in May 2000, the federal government paid out tens of millions to hundreds of businesses to compensate for financial and property loss. Congress approved the payments because the fire was started as a controlled burn on federal land, and got out of control.

“Lightning is not supposed to strike twice in one place,” Holsapple said of the latest town evacuation. “Their preparation in general is better that you would find because of people’s experience with this kind of thing.”

This time around, that federal government help isn’t available.

Gov. Susana Martinez said the state is helping by delaying collection of sales taxes from business affected by the fire.

Other measures being offered to Los Alamos businesses by Holsapple’s groups include making interest payments for business loans, as well as support to help business restart.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

House sales remain hot in central Alberta with first-quarter sales nearly double last year’s numbers. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Central Alberta real estate market hot in 2021

Residential sales nearly double 2020 in first quarter

Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer gave an update on Olymel's COVID-19 situation on Wednesday. (File photo by Advocate staff).
Veer addresses rising COVID-19 cases in Red Deer

Red Deer has added nearly 200 cases of active COVID-19 cases in past week

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney say the province would look at adding additional COVID-19 measures in the coming weeks if the virus continues to spread. (Photo by Government of Alberta)
Walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to open in Red Deer

Alberta adds 1,345 new cases of the virus

Innisfail RCMP are investigating a single-vehicle crash that happened west of Bowden on March 21, 2021. (File photo by Advocate staff)
RCMP investigate culturally insensitive graffiti at Sylvan Lake school

Sylvan Lake RCMP is investigating a vandalism incident. On April 17 around… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Red Deer clinical research centre participating in plant-based COVID-19 vaccine trial

A Red Deer research centre has been selected to participate in the… Continue reading

Lionel Desmond (front row, far right) was part of the 2nd battalion, of the Royal Canadian Regiment, based at CFB Gagetown and shown in this 2007 handout photo taken in Panjwai district in between patrol base Wilson and Masum Ghar in Afghanistan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Facebook-Trev Bungay MANDATORY CREDIT
Desmond inquiry: Veterans Affairs submits internal review after initial refusal

Desmond inquiry: Veterans Affairs submits internal review after initial refusal

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2021 file photo State representatives gather at the Capitol, in Phoenix. Two years after Arizona lawmakers repealed a law barring any instruction on HIV or AIDS that that "promotes a homosexual lifestyle," they are close to enacting a broad remake of the state's sex education laws with a particular focus on LGBTQ issues. (AP Photo/Matt York,File)
Arizona governor vetoes strict sex education legislation

Arizona governor vetoes strict sex education legislation

People cheer after a guilty verdict was announced at the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minn. Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of Floyd. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Tears and relief sweep intersection where George Floyd died

Tears and relief sweep intersection where George Floyd died

This photo provided by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office shows Ruben Flores, 80, who was arrested in connection to the murder of college student Kristin Smart at his Arroyo Grande home on Tuesday, April 12, 2021. San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the arrest warrants for Ruben Flores and his son Paul Flores were issued after a search of the elder Flores' home last month using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs. He said evidence was found linked to the killing of Smart but they had not yet located her body. (San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Document: Kristin Smart once buried in suspect’s backyard

Document: Kristin Smart once buried in suspect’s backyard

In this image from video, defense attorney Eric Nelson, left, and defendant, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin listen to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill read instructions to the jury before closing arguments, Monday, April 19, 2021, in the trial of Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. (Court TV via AP, Pool)
Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death

Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death

This undated image provided by Matthew Pottage shows drought-tolerant succulents in a window box in London. (Matthew Pottage via AP)
Going beyond the traditional window-box garden

Going beyond the traditional window-box garden

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. Female service members and veterans are blasting the way Canada's military police investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Female service members blast military police over sexual misconduct investigations

Female service members blast military police over sexual misconduct investigations

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is joined virtually by Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland as they talk online to a group of front-line pharmacists from across the country to discuss the ongoing vaccination efforts in the fight against COVID‑19, from the Prime Ministers office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Freeland says Liberals open to provincial child care demands, draws line around fees

Freeland says Liberals open to provincial child care demands, draws line around fees

Most Read