Los Alamos Fire: Perimeter of Nuclear Lab Set Ablaze

Officials hope fire starves of fuel if it heads back toward the lab.

ByABC News
June 30, 2011, 3:52 AM

June 30, 2011— -- Firefighters working against the wildfire that surrounds the nuclear lab in Los Alamos, N.M., have set part of the perimeter of the lab ablaze in hopes of starving the wildfire of fuel in the event it heads back toward the stash of radioactive material stored inside the lab.

After creating a blackened ring that now circles the lab, crews are betting that starting fires to stop them is a gamble that will pay off.

"We are in the best shape we've been in since thing started," Chief Doug Tucker of the Los Alamos County Fire Department told ABC News.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez examined some of the first air-quality tests herself Wednesday. Although they show a lot of smoke, officials expressed relief on discovering no radiation had been released.

"Those results show that what we see in this fire is exactly what we see in any fire across New Mexico," laboratory Director Charles McMillan said.

To ensure the accuracy of the examination, the Environmental Protection Agency brought in dozens of air monitors all across the state, along with a special airplane that takes instant radiation samples. Officials have yet to find anything amiss.

But environmental officials warn that the danger is not over. Along with what's actually on lab property, there is concern about what's in the canyons that surround the sprawling complex. Nuclear tests were performed in the canyons dating back to the 1940s; so-called "legacy contaminations."

"The trees have grown up during that timeframe, and the soil can also be contaminated. If they get heated and that stuff goes air borne, then we are concerned," Rita Bates of the New Mexico Environment Department said.

One graduate student armed with a Geiger counter took to YouTube to show there was no shortage of metal or radioactivity.

Much of the area burned back in 2000, and no higher levels of radiation were detected then, so everyone is hoping the same holds true this time.

The fire, which has burned more than 90,000 acres, has led to a mass evacuation, and the city of Los Alamos remains a ghost town. Most of its 12,000 residents were evacuated Monday, with some leaving their sprinklers on to protect their homes.

Still, according to Police Chief Wayne Torpy, about 150 die-hard residents have stayed behind, unfazed by the danger presented by their nuclear neighbor.

"I know the laboratory is secure and they're ready for this kind of emergency situation," Stephanie Chavez, a resident of Los Alamos, told ABC News.

The fire began around 1 p.m. Sunday, according to a report by InciWeb, which provides the "incident information system" and compiles information from government agencies. The report indicated that Sunday's weather conditions included high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, all of which contributed to the inferno.