Los Alamos Fire Continues To Rage

A large wildfire in New Mexico has driven 20,000 people from their homes and is threatening the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The wildfire has burned roughly 70,000 acres — and is just 3 percent contained. Firefighters continue to battle a blaze.

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Firefighters continue to battle a blaze near Los Alamos, New Mexico. The wildfire has burned roughly 70,000 acres, and it's just three-percent contained. It has also forced 20,000 nearby residents to evacuate and has shut down the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

NPRs Ted Robbins reports on concerns that the fire could reach barrels of nuclear waste that are stored there.

TED ROBBINS: The Las Conchas fire is burning trees and dry brush with high winds pushing it along. Fire spokesman Terry McDermott says its moving so fast, hes trying to keep up with it.

Mr. TERRY McDERMOTT (Valles Caldera Trust): I'm just looking at our latest map here. We're just trying to figure it out. As you might expect, this is a pretty fluid situation.

ROBBINS: Whats brought this fire into the spotlight is that its threatening the Los Alamos National Lab, a facility spread out across more than 40 square miles northwest of Santa Fe. Its best known for the development of the first atomic bomb in the midst of World War II: the Manhattan Project.

Researchers there now study a lot of things, from nuclear weapons to climate change to renewable energy.

In 2000, a devastating fire hit the nearby town of Los Alamos, destroying hundreds of homes, but no radiation was released from the lab. Still, between then and now, Terry McDermott says the lab acted.

Mr. McDERMOTT: The labs took extreme measures to not only thin their areas so it would be easier to firefight, but they removed a great deal of the materials that wouldve caused some concerns.

ROBBINS: Anti-nuclear activists say theyre concerned because roughly 15,000 barrels of low-level nuclear waste are stored onsite. They fear that a fire could make the barrels so hot theyd explode.

Los Alamos lab spokesman Kevin Roark says the barrels are under domes, and fire wont get near them because theres nothing to burn around them.

Mr. KEVIN ROARK (Los Alamos National Laboratory): The grounds around these storage domes are completely devoid of vegetation, and most are covered with gravel or asphalt or bare earth.

ROBBINS: Roark also says the barrels themselves can withstand fire, and theres a sprinkler system.

Mr. ROARK: And the fire department also has the capability, should there be an imminent threat, which there isnt, but should there be one, the fire department has the capability to go in and spray fire-retardant foam.

ROBBINS: There is another concern: Soil in some places on lab grounds is contaminated from years of nuclear weapons testing. And trees are growing there. Should the fire burn those areas, its possible that radioactivity could rise into the air.

A spokesperson for the New Mexico Environment Department says that was not a problem in the 2000 fire, and theres no reason to think it will be this time. But its placed air quality monitors around the Las Conchas fire to be sure.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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