Fire Roars at Wash. Nuke Reservation

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — A huge wildfire roaring across the Hanford nuclear reservation burned out of control early Thursday within miles of areas contaminated by radioactivity. At least 25 homes were destroyed and thousands of people were urged to evacuate.

Two people were treated for smoke inhalation.

The fire, which was started Tuesday by a fatal car wreck, spread to 150,000 acres by Thursday morning in the arid sagebrush country of southern Washington. It closed highways and briefly threatened a Hanford building holding radioactive waste Wednesday, then jumped the Yakima River and began burning homes near Benton City, about 10 miles west of Richland.

``It looks like the sky is on fire. It looks like hell. It's scary,'' said Betty Upington of Richland, where some people were asked to evacuate.

As of Thursday morning, the 15-mile fire line was two to three miles from highly radioactive contamination in an area that once handled spent nuclear fuel, said John Britton, a spokesman at Benton County's operations center. Officials feared a possible shift in wind direction could heighten the danger.

The worst of the radioactive waste at Hanford is encased and buried underground, but activists said there was still a danger of contaminated waste being spread.

Energy Department officials said there were no known releases of radioactive waste.

Authorities asked 7,000 people to leave the communities of West Richland and Benton City, just south of the sprawling reservation.

``It's like a ghost town,'' said Amanda Meredith, 20, of Benton City. ``I believe my house is already burned down.''

By early Thursday, 1,300 of the West Richland evacuees were allowed to return.

It's the second time in two months that fire has threatened a U.S. nuclear facility. A fire set May 4 to clear away brush near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico quickly raged out of control. It forced the evacuation of more than 20,000 people and destroyed more than 200 homes in Los Alamos and nearly 40 temporary buildings at the laboratory.

The Red Cross set up shelters in nearby Kennewick and Gov. Gary Locke declared an emergency in Benton County, activating the National Guard to assist in evacuations.

The flames, fueled by 100-degree temperatures and 30 mph wind gusts, overwhelmed firefighters Wednesday. The number of firefighters grew to 500 early Thursday and hundreds more were on the way. Lower temperatures were forecast.

The fire has burned sagebrush that makes up most of the 560-square-mile reservation. For a time, it threatened buildings at the site, which contains the nation's largest volume of nuclear waste.

Hanford was established as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Today, its mission is cleaning up radioactive and hazardous waste created during 40 years of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Two workers were treated for smoke inhalation Wednesday, said Michael Turner, spokesman for Fluor Hanford, a reservation contractor. About 1,700 Hanford employees were either sent home Wednesday or told not to report for work.

Earlier, the Energy Department issued an emergency declaration as flames neared a laboratory where nuclear and hazardous waste samples are stored. Winds later pushed the flames away.

An anti-nuclear group warned that the fire could burn radioactive soils and spew contaminated particles into the air.

``We urge state officials to independently monitor to protect the public and firefighters from the hazards of airborne radioactive contaminated particles,'' said Gerald Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest.

Earlier this month, the federal government warned that radioactive-contaminated soil from the Los Alamos National Laboratory could flush into the Rio Grande River because of the fire there. Workers are digging up truckloads of dirt along Los Alamos Canyon and shipping it to a waste storage site on the federal laboratory's property.

The fire season across the country is already the worst since 1996, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. More than 48,000 fires have burned 1.3 million acres.

President Clinton and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson have offered any federal assistance needed in fighting the Hanford blaze, said Keith Klein, manager of the Hanford site.

The fire began Tuesday in dry grass along the shoulder near the west gate to Hanford when a car left the road, then veered back onto the pavement and slammed head-on into a tractor-trailer rig. The car driver, 67-year-old Phyllis Arnold, died and the truck driver was injured.