Improved weather takes the heat off Los Alamos

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The Independent US

The blowtorch winds and searing heat that fed a raging wildfire have broken, easing the threat to Los Alamos from a blaze that destroyed 260 homes, damaged the town's nuclear weapons laboratory and forced 25,000 people to flee.

The blowtorch winds and searing heat that fed a raging wildfire have broken, easing the threat to Los Alamos from a blaze that destroyed 260 homes, damaged the town's nuclear weapons laboratory and forced 25,000 people to flee.

The fire remained out of control in the nearby forests and canyons, however, and residents were told they could not return to their houses for at least a week.

"This fire is not over with and nobody here is pretending it is," Gov. Gary Johnson said.

The blaze began as a government-prescribed burn to clear brush but exploded in size, fueled by dry weather, temperatures around 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) and wind gusts of more than 50 mph (80 kph). Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Friday the government would suspend burns in the dry Western states for 30 days.

As the night wore on firefighters started to gain some ground. Fire information officer Martin Chavez said the blaze was about 5 percent contained by late Friday. "It's just kind of meandering around," he said.

Many of those who fled Los Alamos on Wednesday faced the anxiety of not knowing whether their homes were still standing. The blaze swept through some homes like a flaming scythe, while neighboring homes were left unscathed. No one was injured, however.

In a Red Cross shelter at a high school in Santa Fe, anxious residents crowded around TV sets, watching round-the-clock news footage to see whether their homes were still there.

A few dialed their home numbers. A busy signal was taken as a bad sign.

"We called our home and it was ringing, and we called a few of our relatives' homes and it was ringing. We felt that's a good indication our houses are still standing," said James Robinson, who sat at the shelter with his wife and five children, the youngest 13 months old.

Across New Mexico, months of drought have left the state tinder dry. More than 200,000 acres (80,000 hectares) have burned already - nearly four times the total for all of last year.

Roughly 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the south, a fire in the Sacramento Mountains, sparked by a downed power line, blew up to 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) Friday, rivaling the Los Alamos fire.

The blaze forced the evacuation of more than 125 people in the tiny towns o sign reads: "Welcome to Weed. Population 20."

That fire was 50 percent contained by late Friday, with full containment expected by Tuesday, fire information officer Mary Stuever said.

The break in the weather in northern New Mexico gave firefighters hope of holding the line against the Los Alamos fire. It was still growing Friday, but at a slower pace, and firefighters expected winds to remain calm through Saturday.

"I can say with a high degree of confidence that we will not have more structures burned in Los Alamos or White Rock," said Doug MacDonald, the Los Alamos fire chief.

Los Alamos was framed by destruction, with houses reduced to charred rubble and twisted metal. Residents and firefighters spoke with the imagery of war, using words like "attacked" to describe the struggle with the fire.

"It came roaring down like a freight train off the mountain," said Ed Pullian, a battalion chief who had slept just seven hours over three nights.

Los Alamos, 70 miles (112 kilometers) north of Albuquerque, is essentially a company town for the nuclear laboratory, which employs 7,000 people at buildings scattered throughout the city. It was the base of operations in the 1940s for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb.

At the weapons lab, flames burned trailers and portable buildings and came within 300 yards (273 meters) of a plutonium storage facility. But lab officials insisted that dangerous materials were protected in facilities strong enough to withstand the crash of a 747.

By Friday, the lab appeared out of danger, and all of the facility's major buildings were unscathed, said Richard Burick, deputy lab director for operations.

Lab Director John Browne said late Friday that the lab will resume limited operations Monday to plan for a phased reopening.

The fire "was just short" of reaching a hazardous waste area in nearby White Rock, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said when questioned by a reporter in San Diego. He added, "but there's been no damage, there's been no problem, but we're monitoring the situation."

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