Wildfires leave Los Alamos a smoking ruin

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The Independent US

An uncontrollable fire, started deliberately by park rangers, left Los Alamos a smoking ruin yesterday and threatened the city's nuclear weapons research facilities.

An uncontrollable fire, started deliberately by park rangers, left Los Alamos a smoking ruin yesterday and threatened the city's nuclear weapons research facilities.

The 11,000 people of Los Alamos, in the north of New Mexico, had already been evacuated by the time the flames swept through the city early yesterday. A further 7,000 people fled from nearby White Rock, which had been seen as a sanctuary. At least 100 homes were burnt, and millions of dollars of damage caused, but there were no casualties.

John Browne, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory said: "These are the homes of our friends. We helped win the Cold War, we endured tragedy and I believe we will recover from it."

Officials at the home of the first nuclear bomb had closed down and evacuated the plant. The tritium and plutonium used for atomic weapons research, as well as the conventional explosives housed at the facility, are in secure, bombproof vaults, they said. "We can assure the country and New Mexico that our nuclear materials are safe," said the Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, after President Bill Clinton declared New Mexico a major disaster area.

In the city, firefighters struggled against the blaze from street to street, damping down houses and then retreating. They ran out of water and had to pull back as the night wound on. Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the city fire brigade, said: "This fire is going to go where it wants to. There are embers being thrown a mile ahead of the fireline."

Yet this disaster was started deliberately: National Park Service officials had set the blaze a few days earlier. Forestry experts have increasingly turned to "prescribed burns" as they come to realise the disastrous consequences of stopping fires: it just leaves yet more dry brush for later years, creating even bigger fires.

This time, the strategy went disastrously wrong, as high winds whipped the fire into an uncontrollable conflagration that ate up stands of tinder-dry ponderosa pine.

The blaze broke through a containment line, and defeated all attempts at creating fire breaks by bulldozing brush or setting "back fires" to clear land. New Mexico's Governor Gary Johnson said: "I would echo every single person's concern in this state now. This seems to have been preventable. I don't have the answers, and I want the answers."

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