Fires forced the evacuation of the New Mexico town of Los Alamos yesterday, including its National Laboratory, the home of US nuclear research.
Eleven thousand residents were leaving, said Jim Paxon, a fire spokesman. No homes had been burnt and there were no casualties so far, but the fires were moving swiftly to the town, blown by winds of between 40mph and 50mph.
Vast air tankers and helicopters dropped fire retardant and slurry to slow the spread of the flames, while firefighters cleared fire breaks.
The laboratory, where the first US nuclear bomb was built in 1945, had been preparing for the flames for several days, and staff were confident that the high explosives and plutonium at the facility were safe.
Jim Danneskiold, a lab spokesman, said: "The fire is miles from buildings containing any nuclear materials and those buildings are rated to survive severe fires, 747 crashes, those kinds of things." The cost of closing the labs was estimated at $3.5m (£2.3m) a day.
The blaze, which has consumed 4,000 acres so far, began when a fire set alight deliberately by the Forest Service ran out of control.
"This is so frustrating," Holly Harmston, the owner of the Blue Window Bistro in Los Alamos told the Albuquerque Tribune. "You ask little kids, and they know not to start a fire, so why are grown men going out and doing it?" Managed burning has become the orthodoxy among forest professionals in the past few years.
Though the summer is only beginning, fires are already burning in New Mexico, Arizona, Florida and Texas, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre.
New Mexico's governor, Gary Johnson, wrote to Bill Clinton asking for a presidential emergency declaration for the state. More than 230,000 acres have been burnt already this year. Firefighter Mark Adams said: "We hadn't even had a fire this time last year."
La NiÃ±a, a patch of cold water in the Pacific Ocean, has brought severe drought and hurricanes to the United States in the past two years, but its impact is lessening, Nasa said yesterday. But the US is set for a hot summer, bringing warnings from electricity utilities that there could be unexpected losses of power as a nation's airconditioning starts to hum.
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