LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico (CNN) — Nearly 20,000 people have fled in front of the wind-driven firestorm as firefighters battled the flames around the town where the atomic bomb was built. In the wake of the massive fire, whole neighborhoods in Los Alamos have been reduced to ashes.
“Everything is being done that can be done. And yet, we may just be seeing the beginning of what is a real catastrophe,” said New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
The evacuations in the town where the atomic bomb was built and its environs came as an estimated 1,000 firefighters continued to fight the blaze.
The man some have blamed for putting the catastrophe in motion was suspended with pay Thursday by the U.S. Park Service, pending an investigation. Congress is also demanding an inquiry.
Park Superintendent Roy Weaver has taken responsibility for the fire, which began near Bandelier National Monument on May 4 as a controlled burn, aimed at ridding the area of brush in order to prevent other fires.
The burn was conducted despite a severe drought and weather forecasts reportedly faxed to the park beforehand, which called for intensifying winds that could create the potential for fire growth.
“This action is administrative in nature and in no way reflects on Superintendent Roy Weaver’s decisions regarding the fire,” said Karen Wade, director of the inter-mountain regional office of the Park Service.
Weaver has not been available for comment about whether he saw the weather service’s fax.
“I couldn’t believe they were out there starting these controlled burns,” said resident Roger Shurter, who has had to move his family twice to stay ahead of the advancing flames.
Iris Kegel, who was evacuated from her home in Espanola, said: “I’d hate to be the people who made the decision. I feel sorry for them.”
Lonely chimneys poking up from piles of cinders
The governor said no deaths or injuries have been reported. Officials have not given a damage estimate, but some destroyed homes had an estimated value of $250,000.
Winds of up to 60 mph pushed the fire Thursday from block to block in the deserted town. Firefighters battled house to house, but within hours, some neighborhoods were reduced to rows of lonely chimneys poking up from piles of cinders.
“I can’t believe how many homes are gone,” said Don Shainin, a fire battalion commander from Albuquerque who came to Los Alamos to help.
Fire crews used hand tools and bulldozers to clear away vegetation and cut firebreaks to try in vain to stop the fire’s march.
“There really isn’t anything ground crews can do,” said U.S. Fire Service Chief Mike Dombeck. “And there are even challenges with aircrafts so we’re sort of at the mercy of the weather right now.”
The weather is not expected to show any mercy until the weekend, when winds are expected to drop to 10-20 mph.
An estimated 400 homes have burned, when blowtorch-like winds caused the wildfire to expand dramatically from 3,700 acres to 18,000 acres in just five hours Thursday. By the end of the day authorities estimated 20,000 acres had burned.
Those flames also came within 300 yards of a plutonium storage facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, the nation’s leading nuclear laboratory. But lab officials insisted that dangerous materials were protected in fireproof facilities strong enough to withstand a crash of a 747 jetliner.
“We can assure the country and New Mexico that our nuclear materials are safe,” said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico congressman.
Water-bombing helicopters and planes dropping fire retardant on the relentless blaze sent plumes of smoke so high into the sky they could be easily seen from space.
“It’s like a giant refinery fire,” CNN Producer Eric Fiegel said from Los Alamos. “The entire horizon from where I’m looking is nothing but smoke.”
‘This community helped us win the Cold War’
Los Alamos and surrounding communities, including Espanola and White Rock, became virtual ghost towns after authorities ordered the evacuation of at least 18,000 people, most of whom headed for the bigger cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, 60-90 miles away.
“I’ve driven through White Rock three times and there’s not a soul to be seen there except for Guardsmen and police,” Fiegel said. “No people. But you should see the smoke now. It’s really carrying.”
Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is essentially a company town for the weapons laboratory, which employs 7,000 people at buildings scattered throughout the city. The town is on a mesa at an altitude 7,600 feet.
About 150 National Guardsmen were called in to keep people out of the evacuated zones and prevent looting.
“We will recover,” Richardson said. “This has been a tragedy for this community, but this community helped us win the Cold War, and we’re going to stand very much behind them.”
Sen. Peter Domenici, R-New Mexico, promised to find out not only why the fire was set but who ordered it.
“It’s quite obvious that it was very risky,” he said at the fire scene.
Domenici and Rep. Tom Udall, whose district includes Los Alamos, are already blaming the Park Service.
“They obviously made the wrong decision based on the weather,” Udall said. “This just isn’t the time to have any fire burning when you have such extreme winds and no humidity.”
Udall suggested government compensation for Los Alamos residents might prevent a long court battle over damage claims.
“The issue is to what extent this was a negligent decision and if it was, I don’t think we want to be forcing people into court to litigate those kind of things,” he said. “I think if it was, we should step up and try to remedy the losses.”
There is precedent for such a decision. A prescribed fire set by the federal Bureau of Land Management in Northern California last July raged out of control and destroyed 23 homes, causing $1.7 million in damage.
A federal report blamed the BLM for several lapses, including setting the blaze despite gusty winds and failing to notify or properly protect homeowners.
The BLM accepted responsibility and agreed to compensate homeowners.
Even if political pressure fails to deliver money to some of the 20,000 people forced to evacuate because of the fire, the federal courts could.
Under the federal Tort Claims Act, the government is generally liable for negligent acts by its agencies and employees, said Turner Branch, an Albuquerque lawyer who met Thursday with potential clients from Los Alamos.
“You can’t keep a tiger in your back yard and not be responsible if it gets out,” Branch said. “In this instance, the tiger is a fire and they were not ready.”
He said a lawsuit also might focus on whether the Forest Service responded quickly enough to fight the fire once it raced out of control.