Fire spares home of the atomic bomb

A smattering of summer rain gave a boost to firefighters battling a huge wildfire near Los Alamos, the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb, giving authorities enough confidence yesterday to allow about 12,000 people to return to their homes for the first time in nearly a week.

Residents rolled into town, honking their horns and waving to firefighters as word got out that the roadblocks were lifted and the narrow two-lane highway to Los Alamos was open. They had fled en masse last week as the fast-moving fire approached the New Mexico city and its nuclear laboratory.

Michael Shields, returning to his apartment in the middle of the town, said: "It's scary, but all of the resources here this time, they were ready. They did a magnificent job."

Los Alamos was evacuated in 2000 because of a fire, and when residents returned that time the town had lost 200 homes and several businesses.

This time the town is completely intact, although the fire has destroyed 63 outlying homes.

Meanwhile, hundreds of employees of the Los Alamos National Laboratory were returning to prepare operations for the scientists and technicians who were forced to evacuate days ago.

The US Environmental Protection Agency said monitoring had shown no change in radiation levels in the area.