Los Alamos Had Good Evacuation Plan

Friday, May 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Preparing for disaster has been a way of life for most people in the town where the atom bomb was born.

That preparation paid off May 10 when the wildfire that devastated Los Alamos advanced on the town of 11,000.

The residents' evacuation — expected to take 11 hours — was completed in just five. The only casualties were a few bent fenders.

Brenda Law, who was 3 months old in 1949 when her parents moved to Los Alamos, remembers the civil defense sirens of the Cold War years.

``We all were taught that when the sirens went off, we had a certain amount of time to get home,'' said Law, who works at a Los Alamos hardware store. ``I think the people who have retired have that ingrained, and I think a lot of the training kicked in.''

Los Alamos was chosen for its remote location and fortress-like layout in the 1940s as the headquarters of the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime effort to build the bomb. A half-century later, the Los Alamos National Laboratory carries on the tradition of top-secret nuclear weapons research.

During the Cold War, civil defense drills were held in case of nuclear attack. More recently, Los Alamos County and lab employees practiced emergency responses in case of terrorist attack.

On May 10, gusty winds carried embers from the burning trees into the canyon just outside of town, and fire officials knew it wouldn't be long before flames reached the town.

Fire Chief Doug MacDonald gave the order to evacuate. Some 11,000 Los Alamos residents streamed out of the town, which is on mesas in the foothills of the Jemez Mountains. There are three main roads out of the area, and only two were open at the time.

``We were very pleased we were able to get people out in half the time we expected,'' Los Alamos County Administrator Joe King said.

An automated phone system with a recorded evacuation message was used to alert residents. The system allows an evacuation to be conducted in phases, with the neighborhoods closest to the fire going first.

``It helps to do it on a staged basis, it helps the flow'' of traffic, King said.

King, who has worked in county and city government in Richland, Wash., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., two other Manhattan Project towns, said Los Alamos is different.

``This by far has had the closest working relationship with the community,'' he said. ``It's different than the other sites where the community is left outside the fence wondering what is going on.''