Hanford fire dies out after scorching homes

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHLAND – A fire that scorched nearly half the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and 20 homes as it crept within two miles of some of the most lethal nuclear waste on Earth was virtually out early Friday, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.

There is no active fire at this time," he said at 3:30 a.m.

Winds could still kick up embers but "we believe the area is now safe," Richardson said.

The help for the hundreds of firefighters battling the flames came in the form of backfires, set Thursday night, and a lull in the winds, which many had feared would drive the flames still further.

Richardson said the fire caused no known air or soil contamination at the nation's largest repository of waste from nuclear weapons.

"There does not appear to be any contamination whatsoever," Richardson said. "We are going to monitor this very carefully."

Thousands of people fled as the fire blackened 190,000 acres and destroyed more than 70 buildings, including 20 homes. Fifteen people were injured, one seriously.

The fire at the sprawling site in southeastern Washington was sparked Tuesday by a fatal car crash. It burned 45 percent of Hanford's 560 square miles, department spokeswoman Julie Erickson said. About 30,000 scorched acres and all the burned homes are outside the reservation.

The fire burned across three old radioactive waste disposal sites -- a trench and two dried up ponds -- but federal and state officials said initial surveys showed no elevated radiation levels.

It also burned near some excavated drums containing uranium wastes, but firefighters stopped that advance.

Hanford was created by the Manhattan Project during World War II to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. The site contains the nation's biggest volume of radioactive wastes.

The most lethal waste is in 177 storage tanks buried six feet underground that could explode if a spark were introduced inside.

But Erickson said the flames got within two miles of the tanks late Thursday.

The vast majority of the radioactive waste produced over more than four decades was either poured into the ground or stored in other ways.

Fire burned over the B-C Cribs, which from 1952 to 1958 were filled with uranium-bearing wastes from Hanford's U-Plant Metal Recovery mission. Those wastes were not very high in radioactivity.

Cribs operate like septic tank drain fields. Liquids were poured into a trench and percolated through the soil, which worked as a filter to capture most of the radioactive materials.

Hanford officials control vegetation growing over the cribs and ponds to prevent deep-rooted plants from bringing radiation back to the surface. That kept the flames from sending radioactive particles into the air.

Also burned were two dried-up ponds which were used from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s to contain low-level radioactive liquid wastes from a plant that reprocessed nuclear reactor fuel to extract plutonium.

The waste was mostly from cooling water and floor drains. Liquid in the ponds either evaporated or seeped into the ground.

Strong winds and temperatures around 100 caused the fire to explode Wednesday afternoon from 25,000 acres to 100,000 acres in less than two hours. More than 900 firefighters made progress Thursday when expected 40 mph winds failed to materialize.

As fire experts were reviewing the progress of the fire, they discovered that some crews underestimated just how quickly the fire would spread.

KING 5 News has learned that during the early stages of the fire on Tuesday, commanders turned down the help of a Chinook Helicopter firefighting team from Yakima, believing the help was not necessary.

By Wednesday, flames had advanced 20 miles in less than 90 minutes, jumping a river, and devouring almost everything in their path.

“Circumstances here were very tricky,” Keith Kline, the Energy Department’s manager for Hanford, told KING 5 News. “Fires are fires, and they can just be unpredictable, and this is one that just got away from folks.”

It was the second time in two months that wildfire threatened a U.S. nuclear site. In May, a fire set to clear brush near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico raged out of control, forcing evacuation of more than 20,000 people and destroying more than 200 homes and nearly 40 temporary buildings at the lab.

Richardson said that disaster helped firefighters this week.

"We did learn from several other fires in the 1980s and Los Alamos," he said. Hanford firefighters made sure that brush was cleared and gravel was spread at sensitive areas, to prevent flames from getting close.

Klein also said officials sought independent experts to check the site for radiation releases and secured classified materials.

Initial samples showed no sign of radiation releases, but more tests are planned on vegetation and air-monitoring filters, said Debra McBaugh, a state Health Department spokeswoman.

Of the injured, 13 were treated for smoke inhalation and a firefighters received a minor leg injury. But the seriously injured man, Robert Pierce, 46, received third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. He was being treated at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Neighbor Jim Daniels and others saw him appear out of the flames and smoke and collapse.

"I wanted to somehow stop his pain, and I just didn't know how to do it," Daniels said. "He was in so much pain. I would have done anything."

About 8,000 Hanford workers were told to stay home Thursday and Friday, leaving 400 to 500 at the site. About 7,000 nearby residents evacuated at the height of the blaze Wednesday were allowed back into their homes Thursday afternoon.

Marty Peck, 43, said he watched the fire approach his Benton City house from Rattlesnake Mountain, about two miles away.

"You could see it jetting toward us. It was smoky and you couldn't see the flame until it got right here. And then it exploded on the pasture," he said. "It was just a fireball two or three times taller than our house."

Fund set up for fire victims
People who want to help victims of the Hanford fire can make donations to the Hanford Fire Relief Fund at any US Bank branch.

The Tri-City Herald established the account Thursday with US Bank to aid families whose homes have been destroyed or damaged by the fire. It has burned nearly 200,000 acres around the Hanford nuclear reservation and destroyed 20 homes. The American Red Cross of Benton-Franklin County will distribute the money.

US Bank announced its own donation of $10,000 to the fund.

People wishing to help can make donations at any one of approximately 1,000 US Bank branches in the West and Midwest.

Road closures
The wildfire could cause some highway closures over the busy July 4 weekend, and transportation officials were warning travelers to plan ahead.