Wildfire Threatens Los Alamos Lab

A wildfire is raging out of control at the western border of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. The lab has been closed and all personnel evacuated while firefighters battle the blaze. In addition, residents of 500 homes in the nearby village were ordered to leave. Officials say that even if the fire reaches the lab, it represents absolutely no threat to either the high explosives or the radioactive material stored on the site.

The fire started on Thursday as a routine yearly controlled burn in Bandelier National Monument, a park located to the southwest of the lab. Following a standard procedure, park officials set the fire to reduce the potential fuel supply for uncontrolled forest fires. But the maintenance fire turned wild on Friday when unexpectedly high winds of about 65 kilometers per hour apparently blew cinders into the forest west of the laboratory, which two consecutive years of drought had turned into an explosive tinderbox.

Currently, firefighters are holding the fire to the western side of a road bordering the westernmost reach of the LANL grounds. If it crosses onto the lab grounds, it could do considerable damage to buildings at the "S-site," where researchers store a large quantity of high explosives in hardened concrete bunkers. The bunkers themselves, however, are fireproof. "They are designed to keep explosions in," says Kevin Roark, a LANL spokesperson, "but they are just as good at keeping fire out." Radioactive materials stored elsewhere at the lab are similarly protected against any threat of fire, Roark says.

Lab officials had been preparing for a fire like this since 1997, when a major forest fire broke out near the lab. "It was never a question of if," Roark says. "It was a question of when."