LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — A fast-moving wildfire forced officials at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory to close the site Monday while stirring memories of a devastating blaze more than a decade ago that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in the area.
More than 100 residents evacuated their homes as the fire swelled Monday to 68 square miles and loomed just a mile southwest of the nation's pre-eminent nuclear lab. Overnight winds from the northwest kept the blaze from moving onto lab property, though forecasts called for a change in wind patterns by midday.
The famed northern New Mexico lab, where scientists developed and tested the first atomic bomb during World War II, activated its emergency operations center overnight and cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.
Officials said all hazardous and radioactive materials were being protected.
The lab was closed Monday, and Los Alamos and nearby White Rock were under voluntary evacuation orders.
About 100 residents from the rural towns of Cochiti Mesa and Las Conchas were evacuated after the fire started Sunday afternoon. In nearby Santa Fe, emergency officials were preparing to provide a shelter for evacuees.
The blaze started on private land about 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos. Flames and smoke could be seen from the outskirts of Albuquerque, about 80 miles away.
On Monday morning, the Pajarito plateau upon which the lab sits was awash in a thick haze, while a charred stench permeated the area. On the southwestern edge of the plateau, white smoke filled the canyons above Cochiti reservoir and on the north end heavy black columns of smokes were rising in the air.
Cars headed down the two-lane highway that snakes from Los Alamos to Pojoaque were stuffed with belongings as residents fled the blaze.
The fire was eerily similar to one of the most destructive fires in New Mexico history. That fire, the Cerro Grande, burned some 47,000 acres — 73 square miles — in May 2000 and caused more than $1 billion in property damage. About 400 homes and 100 buildings on lab property were destroyed in that fire.
That blaze also raised concerns about toxic runoff and radioactive smoke, although lab spokesman Kevin Roark said no contaminants were released in the Cerro Grande fire.
Environmental specialists from the lab were mobilized and monitoring air quality on Monday, he said, but the main concern was smoke.
Still, there were questions about whether firefighters would be prepared if the fire moved into main areas of the lab.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy's inspector general issued a report that said Los Alamos County firefighters weren't sufficiently trained to handle the unique fires they could face with hazardous or radioactive materials at LANL.
Lab and fire department officials at the time said the report focused too much on past problems and not enough on what had been done to resolve them. Some problems also were noted in previous reports.
Greg Mello, with the anti-nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the group doesn't have enough information "to formulate any views on safety at this point."
"It is important to remind ourselves that the site has natural hazards ... and Murphy's Law is still about the best enforced law in the state," he said.
Meanwhile, the biggest blaze in Arizona history was 82 percent contained after burning through 538,000 acres in the White Mountains in northeast Arizona. The fire started May 29 and has destroyed 32 homes. It's believed to have been caused by a campfire.
And in Colorado, about 100 firefighters are battling a wildfire that broke out in a canyon northwest of Boulder.
Fire officials have put 340 homeowners on standby to evacuate. No structures are immediately threatened by the fire.
In southern Colorado, hot, windy weather has caused a wildfire that's been burning since June 12 to spread. The Duckett fire grew by about 400 acres over the weekend but it's not threatening any homes. Most the growth has been in a steep, rugged terrain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The fire is burning on seven square miles and is 80 percent contained.
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