June 28, 2011 in Nation/World

Wildfire closes Los Alamos lab

Spot fire at complex burns old test site
Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Smoke from the Las Conchas fire fills the skies over Los Alamos National Laboratory on Monday.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – Thousands of residents calmly fled Monday from the mesa-top town that’s home to the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, ahead of an approaching wildfire that sent up towering plumes of smoke, rained down ash and sparked a spot fire on lab property where scientists 50 years ago conducted underground tests of radioactive explosives.

Los Alamos National Laboratory officials said the spot fire was soon contained and no contamination was released. They also assured that radioactive materials stored in various spots elsewhere on the sprawling lab were safe from flames.

The wildfire, which began Sunday, had destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos by early Monday and forced the closure of the lab while stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed 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 grew Monday to roughly 44,000 acres, or 68 square miles – was the most active fire he had seen in his career. By midafternoon, it had jumped a highway and burned an acre of land on the outskirts of the lab’s 36-square mile complex.

The fire scorched a section of what is known as the Technical Area 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials. Lab officials said the fire was safely extinguished.

The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3 1/2 miles from a dumpsite 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 New Mexico site.

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