LOS ALAMOS – Firefighters used bulldozers to clear swaths of forest on Tuesday in a major push to seal off a forest fire that kept a major U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory closed and threatened a nearby town. Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the world’s first atomic bomb was created in 1945, was closed for a second straight day as the Cerro Grande fire raged just across a highway from one section of the sprawling facility. Officials said the laboratory would be closed again on Wednesday.
The fire, which has raged for five days after being sparked inadvertently by the U.S. Forest Service, also posed a danger to the neighbouring town of Los Alamos.
More than 600 firefighters burned brush ahead of the blaze and cleared swaths of forest with bulldozers to deprive the fire of new fuel in an effort to ring the wildfire with a burn-free zone before weather conditions worsen, as they are forecast to do on Wednesday.
“We’re calling today the big push,” said Fire Information Officer Jim Paxon.
“Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re expecting bigger winds, higher temperatures and lower humidity so the time to get this fire is now,” Paxon added.
Only a skeleton staff of 500 people out of a work force of close to 12,000 remained at the Los Alamos laboratory, which covers 43 square miles (112 square km) in the sparsely settled Juarez Mountains of northern New Mexico.
HIGH EXPLOSIVES SAID TO BE SAFE
Officials said the laboratory’s high explosives and plutonium were safely sealed in fireproof steel and concrete bunkers. The plutonium facility is “miles away” from the wildfire and the area around it has been cleared of trees and other combustible material, laboratory director John Browne said.
Firefighters were holding the blaze at a standstill along Highway 501, which borders the laboratory’s western edge.
Some of the U.S. government’s most-secret nuclear weapons research has been conducted at Los Alamos. But its role of developing nuclear weapons changed in the 1990s when the United States stopped nuclear testing, and now the facility’s main charge is to ensure that the nuclear weapons stockpile stays in working order.
Browne said this was the first time the laboratory had been closed due to a forest fire.
With 3,365 acres (1,362 hectares) already consumed, Paxon said he expected several more thousand acres (hectares) would be gone by the end of the day due to preventive burning.
“We have to seal this fire off and keep it from crossing Los Alamos canyon. Otherwise, it’ll burn right into the city site,” he said.
The town of Los Alamos, which borders the lab, has evacuated 500 homes on the west side of town and closed schools due to heavy smoke.
The fire began last Thursday when fires deliberately set to clear scrub bush in Bandelier National Monument, the site of ancient Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings, burned out of control as winds picked up to 40 mph (64 kph).
U.S. Forest Service officials have defended their decision to burn underbrush, saying it was carefully planned and a necessary tool for forest management.
Gov. Gary Johnson on Monday declared a state of emergency for Los Alamos and counties in southern New Mexico where another wildfire has scorched 5,400 acres (2,160 hectares) and destroyed three homes. No serious injuries have been reported in either fire.