Firestrom sweeps through New Mexico town

Click to follow
The Independent US

A firestorm has swept through the abandoned streets of Los Alamos, burning at least 100 homes while frustrated firefighters ran short of water and were forced to retreat.

At least 18,000 people were evacuated from Los Alamos, including 7,000 in suburban White Rock this morning. No injuries were reported, but President Bill Clinton declared New Mexico a major disaster area.

At the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory, for the first time shut down by fire, flames singed a research building but it did not ignite. Explosives and radioactive material were protected in fireproof facilities, lab officials said.

"We can assure the country and New Mexico that our nuclear materials are safe," said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico congressman.

The fire was set by the National Park Service a week ago to clear brush, but it quickly flared out of control, racing through stands of ponderosa pine as it grew to more than 4,500 acres. Winds gusted to 50 mph and forecasters said they could increase Thursday to 60 mph.

Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is essentially a company town for the federal lab. It sprang up in the 1940s as the base of operations for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb. There are still military barracks and military-style housing in Los Alamos, along with relatively upscale, newer developments.

Neighborhood by neighborhood, the town burned on Wednesday.

House after house filled with fire, then exploded in pulsing orange flames. Just after sundown, flames marched to a tree-covered ridge overlooking downtown, lighting the night sky.

Residents of the community built on nuclear research starting fleeing as winds rose in the afternoon, hurling flames into tinder-dry, tree-filled residential areas. Police, sheriff's and fire department officials went door to door among Los Alamos' 6,000 households, telling people to get out.

"This is the first time I felt fear," said Jaret McDonald, a 28-year-old resident who has been evacuated from his home because of fires three times before. "When you're against Mother Nature, you can't contain it. You'll lose every time."

As evacuees fled to shelters, hotels and motels outside Los Alamos, firefighter Sam Schroeder stood outside one flaming home on Sycamore Street.

"This is bizarre - this house won't be touched," she said, pointing to the house next door. "This one will go all the way to the ground."

The fire was too dangerous to battle head-on, firefighters said. They pulled back as flames advanced. Firefighters even had to move their command post.

"This fire's got a mind of its own," county spokesman Bill Lehman said. Firefighters were reluctant to back off, Lehman said, but "there was just nothing we could do, because of the wind."

Water-dropping helicopters and airplanes dropping pink fire retardant bombarded the blaze, hoping to narrow its westward and northward thrust.

About one-third of the 10,000 residents in western Espanola, in a valley 10 miles below Los Alamos, were advised to evacuate voluntarily, Espanola Mayor Richard Lucero said.

The Los Alamos laboratory declared a general emergency on Wednesday, saying there were grass and brush fires at three of its research facilities. Its weapons-engineering tritium facility at Technical Area 16 was swept by fire, but the masonry building was left intact, lab officials said.