LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Driven by swirling wind of up 55 mph, fire rolled from block to block in abandoned Los Alamos on Thursday, burning scores of homes down to their foundations in the town where the atomic bomb was built.
Firefighters doused still-standing homes with water as orange flames and billowing smoke rose over the town. Whole neighborhoods were reduced to smoldering ruins, with everything from trailers to mansions going up in smoke in a fire that was set to burn brush at Bandelier National Monument.
By nightfall, the winds had diminished and were 15 to 25 mph.
The wildfire first reached Los Alamos on Wednesday — forcing the evacuation of the entire town — and exploded in size from 3,700 acres to 20,000 Thursday night, fanned by blowtorch winds so strong they made parked cars sway.
“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.
At the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, flames burned trailers and portable buildings, rolled past concrete bunkers containing explosives, and came within 300 yards of a plutonium storage facility. But lab officials insisted that dangerous materials were protected in fireproof facilities strong enough to withstand the 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.
Fire crews with hand tools and bulldozers worked feverishly to protect homes by clearing away vegetation and cutting firebreaks ahead of the flames. Helicopters dropped water on the blaze, while airplanes bombarded it with pink fire retardant.
By 9 p.m. Thursday, winds had decreased– and were expected to be slower than predicted through the night, National Weather Service meteorologist Kurt Von Speybroeck said. He said most winds were in the 15- to 25-mph range.
The fire had destroyed an estimated 260 homes and damaged 20 others in the northern and western parts of town, said Bill Lehman, spokesman for Los Alamos County. The count included townhouses and duplexes under the same roof.
Rep. Tom Udall, whose district includes Los Alamos, said earlier that federal officials estimated 300 to 400 were burned.
The number of people evacuated grew Thursday to more than 20,000, with residents to the north and northeast of Los Alamos also fleeing the fire.
The fire was set May 4 by the National Park Service to clear brush near Bandelier, but it burned out of control in the dry, windy weather. A special National Weather Service forecast faxed to the park beforehand said fire-growth conditions were at their highest.
Park Superintendent Roy Weaver has taken responsibility for the fire. He is believed to have evacuated and has not been available for comment about whether he saw the weather service’s fax. On Thursday, Weaver was placed on leave with pay by the Park Service pending an investigation.
In an interview with The New York Times before he was put on leave, Weaver said: “The data and the spot weather forecasts met the fire prescription. It’s not like someone was just picking things out of the air.”
He said the winds whipped up unexpectedly, and the flames began spreading toward Los Alamos, the newspaper reported Friday.
Members of Congress demanded an inquiry.
“Somebody made a mistake and obviously we have to find out who,” Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said as he visited the fire zone.
“It should never have happened. That’s the only thing I can say unless you want me to curse,” said Gail Bolger, who was forced out of her mobile home park in Los Alamos to a shelter at a Santa Fe high school.
Whoever made the decision for the deliberate fire “should have known better,” Bolger said. “This is the windy season. We have it every year, and I think he should have used his head.”
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, altitude 7,600 feet.
The fire came out of the Jemez Mountains to the west and moved northeast, torching the west and north sides of the city.
As the sun rose Thursday, brick fireplaces and chimneys were the only things remaining of some homes. A basketball hoop remained intact on one driveway, its net singed but still hanging outside a destroyed house.
The towering ponderosa pines of the Los Alamos Canyon along the western edge of town could be seen through the scorched shells of homes that had been valued at more than a quarter-million dollars.
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.”
Many of the people forced to evacuate from White Rock on Thursday had already fled Los Alamos.
Kirk Christensen and his wife had taken in four Los Alamos families this week. But when the fire advanced on White Rock, they had to load up their camper and head into a sea of cars crawling down the highway for Santa Fe, where they planned to camp outside a friend’s house.
“We weren’t ready down here,” Christensen said. “We were the refugee center for our friends.”