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Originally published June 27, 2011 at 8:37 PM | Page modified June 28, 2011 at 6:24 AM

Growing New Mexico fire shuts Los Alamos nuke lab

Thousands of residents Monday fled Los Alamos, N.M., ahead of an approaching wildfire that was near the sprawling nuclear lab where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II..

The Associated Press

quotes "where scientists 50 years ago conducted underground tests of radioactive... Read more
quotes They may be referring to tests of explosives laced with radioactive isotopes that were... Read more

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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 anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, however, said the fire appeared to be about 3-½ 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 low-level radiation dumpsite in southern New Mexico.

Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval declined to confirm that there were any such drums now on the property.

The wildfire, which began Sunday, grew Monday to roughly 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles. It 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.

On Monday afternoon, the flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed northern New Mexico lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The lab activated its emergency-operations center overnight and cut natural gas to some areas overnight as a precaution. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy's inspector general issued a report that said Los Alamos County firefighters weren't sufficiently trained to handle the unique fires they could face with hazardous or radioactive materials at the 36-square mile complex.

The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites or "technical areas." Those include research facilities as well as waste-disposal 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.

Traffic on Trinity Drive, one of the main roads out of Los Alamos, was bumper-to-bumper Monday afternoon as residents followed orders to leave. Authorities said about 2,500 of the roughly 12,000 residents left under an earlier voluntary evacuation.

The fire was eerily similar to one of the most destructive fires in New Mexico history. That fire, the Cerro Grande, burned some 47,000 acres in May 2000 and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. About 400 homes and 100 buildings on lab property were destroyed in that fire.

Another fire continued to burn uncontrolled on the other side of Santa Fe. And about 125 acres were burning south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande bosque.

Meanwhile, the biggest blaze in Arizona history was 82 percent contained after burning through 538,000 acres in the White Mountains in northeast Arizona. The fire started May 29 and has destroyed 32 homes. It's believed to have been caused by a campfire.

And in Colorado, about 100 firefighters are battling a wildfire that broke out in a canyon northwest of Boulder.

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