LOS ALAMOS – Preparations for an investigation into the Los Alamos fire, which started as a controlled burn but quickly spread into a blazing inferno that has so far consumed 28,000 acres (11,330 hectares), were being made on Friday as the fire continued to burn out of control. Contingency plans were being put in place for the voluntary evacuation of the city of Santa Fe, 42 miles (67 km) south of the burn area and with a population about 80,000, in the event that the swirling winds, currently blowing from west to east, shifted to a southerly direction.
Smoke from the fire was visible from Santa Fe and officials said fears of smoke inhalation, and not the fire itself, could prompt a voluntary evacuation advisory.
The investigation into how the controlled burn exploded into an all-out wildfire, which also closed America’s top-secret nuclear laboratory, will be conducted by New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.
His spokesman, Chris Gallegos, said the Senator and his aides were setting the parameters for the investigation, which was expected to be formally announced in the next day or so.
Roy Weaver, superintendent of Bandelier National Monument, who ordered the controlled, or prescribed, burn, was suspended on Thursday pending the investigation.
Weaver has said on numerous occasions since the fire got out of hand on Tuesday that the burn – a favoured method of managing forests and getting rid of underbrush – was carefully planned but that the winds got out of hand. He insisted he had not seen a fax from the National Weather Service predicting high winds in the area.
Firefighters on Friday said containment of the blaze, which forced the evacuation of 20,000 people and destroyed two-thirds of the city of Los Alamos, was nowhere in sight.
“It went from 3,000 (1,214 hectares) to 18,000 (7,285 hectares) to 28,000 acres (11,330 hectares) in only three days. You can imagine it’s not holding well at all.” said park ranger Chris Judson.
Officials were hoping that cooler temperatures and calmer winds would allow fire fighters closer to the blaze as well as permitting water dropping planes and helicopters to resume their battle. Flights were grounded on Thursday because of the winds and smoke.
Over 800 firefighters and support staff were on hand and crews worked overnight putting out spot fires in neighbourhoods and on the grounds of the sprawling Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was built in 1945.
“It was pretty hectic last night,” said laboratory spokesman John Gustafson on Friday. “The lab had big flames on it in several places.”
Gustafson said the fire had moved past many of the larger facilities and has burned over some of the high explosive areas, but that all major facilities were in tact and virtually unscathed.
The White House said on Thursday it believed nuclear materials were safe in disaster-proof bunkers.
Fires were burning in canyons on either side of the laboratory’s Technical Area 55, where plutonium is stored, but Gustafson said that all nuclear material is stored in protective bunkers and monitors surrounding lab property had not detected any radiological or chemical releases.
Some of the U.S. government’s most secret nuclear weapons research has been conducted at Los Alamos. Since the United States stopped nuclear testing in the 1990s, the facility’s main charge is to ensure that the nuclear weapons stockpile stay in working order. The cost of keeping the lab closed is $3.5 million a day, said Bernie Pleau, of Department of Energy, which owns the lab.
Fire information officer Jim Paxon said officials were still concerned that the fire was moving across the laboratory toward the town of White Rock and to the north toward Santa Clara Pueblo reservation.
Paxon said fire fighters on Friday were planning on trying to “branch the fire” and have two separate teams tackling the blaze from both sides.
He said that because of several other fires burning in the state, resources were getting thin. “We’re starting to compete for scarce resources, because there’s fire everywhere. We’re strapped and looking for crews.”
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt is expected to tour Los Alamos later on Friday.