LOS ALAMOS – An army of 1,000 firefighters on the ground and in the sky struggled on Saturday to contain a wind-driven forest fire that forced thousands of people from their homes, caused $1 billion in damages and charred vast areas at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the top U.S. nuclear research facility. Despite their efforts, the mighty blaze spread like a fast-growing cancer across more than 36,000 acres (14,596 hectares) of scenic northern New Mexico, sending up huge plumes of smoke that were visible for hundreds of miles (kilometers).
Officials had expected cooler temperatures and calmer winds to help them get a grip on the fire, which was deliberately set last week as part of a forest management programme to avert just such disasters.
But on Saturday afternoon officials said winds had kicked up again and left them scrambling to hold on to the 5 percent of the fire they had contained on Friday night.
“This thing is growing and we don’t where it’s going to end up,” U.S. Forest Service fire information officer Jim Paxon said during a news conference on Saturday. “It will be a long time before we get this fire contained … this fire is going to burn for weeks.”
Paxon said the fire, which had so far destroyed 261 homes and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, was spreading in three directions all around the Los Alamos laboratory and was near a town and two Indian reservations.
“We just simply don’t have enough people power and machines and aircraft to just stop it right now,” he said. Officials said more than 1,000 firefighters using hand tools, heavy equipment and fire hoses were battling the flames, aided by a fleet of 18 firefighting airplanes and helicopters dumping water and fire retardants.
Along with the winds, Paxon said the fire was being fuelled by the effects of a prolonged drought that was the most severe in New Mexico’s recorded history, dating back to the 1700s.
President Bill Clinton on Saturday declared a 12-county region of New Mexico a disaster area, freeing up federal aid to help those affected by the wildfire.
AREA AROUND THE LAB BURNED
The blaze began as a controlled burn last week by the Forest Service to clear underbrush and manage the forest to limit the possibility of big fires.
But wind gusts of up to 60 miles an hour (96 kph) caused the fire to race out of control, through the ponderosa pine forests at the national laboratory 40 miles (64 km) northwest of Santa Fe.
Officials said 30 percent of the 43 square mile (111 sq km) land area of the Los Alamos laboratory, where scientists built the first U.S. atomic bomb during the Second World War, had been burned. None of the lab’s permanent buildings were damaged.
The laboratory has been closed because of the fire, but a few administrative functions could reopen as early as Monday, lab director John Browne said.
Air monitors had detected no radioactive releases, but lab officials said they were still taking care to protect a warehouse containing low-level nuclear waste stored above ground. Other, more potent nuclear materials, are stored in well-protected underground bunkers, they said.
Officials took reporters to the critical storage areas on Saturday, where the fire had advanced to the surrounding fences before firefighter working through the night on Friday subdued the flames with foam.
The charred ground was still smoking and small fires could be seen in the distance.