LOS ALAMOS – Firefighters watched warily to see if a cold front expected on Tuesday would slow the march of New Mexico’s worst-ever wildfire, which was threatening a recreational canyon after scorching Los Alamos last week. In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a nonbinding resolution urging the federal government to pay millions in compensation for lost property because the fire was started by the National Park Service.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the world’s first atomic bomb was built in 1945, remained closed as supervisors drew up plans for a phased return to work after several buildings were burnt or damaged. Lab officials said no radioactive materials were released.
As residents returned to all but the worst-hit neighbourhoods of the town of Los Alamos, bulldozers cleared trees and brush from parts of Santa Clara Canyon about 10 miles to the northeast in a bid to halt the blaze’s spread.
The fire was burning low in the underbrush in Santa Clara Canyon but could be fanned into a raging tree-top fire again if winds stiffen, officials said.
“We’ve done about all we can do. We’re kind of waiting with baited breath,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Paxon said.
Winds were expected to pick up to gusts of up to 60 miles per hour later on Tuesday, the same kind of conditions that blew the blaze into Los Alamos last week, but a cold front also forecast for later in the day could help firefighters, he said.
“It’s a blessing,” Paxon said about the cold front. “We’re hoping for cooler temperatures and higher humidity”.
The blaze started on May 4 in Bandelier National Monument when a controlled burn aimed at preventing wildfires by clearing brush and tree limbs raced out of control, blown through drought-parched pine forests by strong winds.
Bandelier’s superintendent Roy Weaver was put on paid leave and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suspended all controlled burns in western states for 30 days while his department investigates the wildfire. An investigative team is due to report to Babbitt on Thursday.
The House of Representatives passed the nonbinding resolution for federal compensation at the urging of two New Mexico members, Democratic Representative Tom Udall and Republican Representative Heather Wilson.
“It’s the sense of Congress that the government should take responsibility for the fire set by the National Park Service,” Udall said.
He said preliminary estimates ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars for property damage not covered by insurance.
The fire forced the evacuation of all 11,000 residents of the town of Los Alamos last Wednesday. About 7,000 people were able to return to their homes on Monday, but another 4,000 were being kept out, either because their homes were no longer standing or because the neighbourhoods in which they stood were still in danger.
The fire destroyed 220 homes and apartment buildings, leaving 405 families with nowhere to live, fire officials said.
They said the fire was 35 percent contained at its southern flank but was burning unchecked elsewhere. By Tuesday morning the blaze had a perimeter of 89 miles (143 kilometres).
It was being fought by a small army of 1,262 firefighters and so far the firefighting effort has cost $5.8 million. There is no estimate yet of the damage costs