June 28, 2011— -- Thousands of residents are leaving the town that hosts America's nuclear weapons lab, Los Alamos, ahead of a wildfire that has shot up towers of smoke, rained down ash and sparked a fire on the lab's property where scientists once conducted tests on radioactive explosives.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper Monday after many of the New Mexico town's 12,000 residents were asked to leave. Authorities said that 2,500 people had already left under an earlier voluntary evacuation.
Los Alamos is where the first atomic bomb was built and where today's most dangerous weapons are made. The wildfire, which began Sunday, has burned through more than 60,000 acres and has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos by early Monday.
The fire forced the 36-square-mile Los Alamos National Laboratory to close after the flames came within 50 feet of its perimeter. One small fire, located where a series of underground tests with highly explosive and radioactive material were performed in the 1960s, was safely extinguished.
Officials say the nuclear material inside Los Alamos is secure, and that there is no danger to the public. But one former top security official, Glen Walp, isn't so sure.
"Potential is high for a major calamity if the fire would reach these areas," he said.
He said that nuclear waste is stored 3 miles from where the fire is blazing now.
"It contains approximately 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste," Walp said. "It's not contained within a concrete, brick and mortar-type building, but rather in a sort of fabric-type building that a fire could easily consume."
Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval could not say what would happen if drums containing that waste were to burn.
"Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question other than to say that the material is well protected," he told the Associated Press. "And the lab -- knowing that it works with hazardous and nuclear materials -- takes great pains to make sure it is protected and locked in concrete steel vaults. And the fire poses very little threat to them."
The New Mexico Environment Department is currently monitoring the air for radioactive particles and tritium using low-volume air pumps. The lab also has monitors that can be used to check for possible radiation contamination from the fire.
Wildfires Bring Back Painful Memories for Residents
For people who live in Los Alamos, this fire is a case of deja vu. This same area burned 11 years ago, and some structures at the lab went up in flames.
"The hair on the back of your neck goes up," Los Alamos county fire chief Doug Tucker said. "I saw that plume and thought, 'Oh my God here we go again.'"
Residents who are leaving also remember the last threat to Los Alamos.
"Last time, I just walked out of my house and said, 'Goodbye, and that it was going to be OK,'" said Vivan Levy, who has lived in the town since the 1970s as she packed her car. "I'm doing the same thing this time. It's going to be OK. I'm prepared to say goodbye."
Tucker said that the blaze grew Monday to 44,000 acres, or 68 square miles, was the most active he had seen in his career. It could potentially triple in size, and firefighters still did not which way the 60-mph-plus winds would take it.
"We're prepared for the fire to go in any direction," Tucker said.
Officials say that they learned a lot during that fire.
"We're in a much better place than we were in 11 years ago," said Rich Marquez, the executive director of the lab. "We take precautions just in our normal existence and the way we plan, the way we manage materials like that. We assume the worst.