Struggle To Contain N.M. Blaze

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

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — The blowtorch winds and searing heat that fed a raging wildfire broke Friday, easing the threat to Los Alamos from a blaze that destroyed 260 homes, damaged the town's nuclear weapons laboratory and forced 25,000 people to flee.

The fire remained out of control in the nearby forests and canyons, however, and residents were told they could not return to their houses for at least a week.

``This fire is not over with and nobody here is pretending it is,'' Gov. Gary Johnson said.

The blaze began as a government-prescribed burn to clear brush. On Friday, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said the government would suspend those burns in the dry western United States for 30 days.

Many of those who fled on Wednesday faced the anxiety of not knowing whether their homes were still standing. The blaze swept through some homes like a flaming scythe, while neighboring homes were left unscathed.

In a Red Cross shelter at a high school in Santa Fe, anxious residents crowded around TV sets, watching round-the-clock news footage to see whether their homes were still there. Others logged on to four computers at the shelter to scan a list posted on the county Web site of destroyed houses.

A few dialed their home numbers. A busy signal was taken as a bad sign.

``We called our home and it was ringing, and we called a few of our relatives' homes and it was ringing. We felt that's a good indication our houses are still standing,'' said James Robinson, who sat at the shelter with his wife and five children, the youngest 13 months old.

Relief workers had planned to escort some residents to their homes Saturday to pick up clothes, medicine and other belongings but later decided the town remained too unsafe.

Across New Mexico, months of drought have left the state tinder dry. More than 200,000 acres have burned already — nearly four times the total for all of last year — and the fire season has just begun.

Roughly 200 miles to the south, a fire in the Sacramento Mountains, sparked by a downed power line, blew up to 20,000 acres Friday, rivaling the Los Alamos fire.

The blaze forced the evacuation of the southern New Mexico towns of Sacramento and Weed and surrounding rural areas, said Rick Hartigan, a fire information officer. He did not know how many people had fled or whether any homes had been burned.

The break in the weather in northern New Mexico gave firefighters hope of holding the line against the Los Alamos fire. It was still growing Friday, but at a slower pace, and firefighters expected winds to remain calm through Saturday.

Crews used bulldozers and hand tools to cut brush and dig trenches in still-standing neighborhoods, fearful the flames still might take an unexpected turn. Overnight, other crews took advantage of lower temperatures and higher humidity to burn trees, grass and brush about five miles from town, hoping to deprive the fire of fuel.

``I can say with a high degree of confidence that we will not have more structures burned in Los Alamos or White Rock,'' said Doug MacDonald, the Los Alamos fire chief.

The blaze was deliberately set May 4 to destroy brush at Bandelier National Monument, but it raged out of control and swept through about 28,000 acres by Friday. Roy Weaver, the Bandelier superintendent who gave the go-ahead for the burn despite an ominous weather forecast, was placed on leave with pay Thursday pending an investigation. Officials expect to receive a report on the cause of the fire Thursday.

Los Alamos was framed by destruction, with houses reduced to charred rubble and twisted metal. In one driveway, the fiberglass shell of a sports car had fused with the concrete. In another yard, a melted Big Wheel sat next to the seared remnants of a children's playset.

Residents and firefighters spoke with the imagery of war, using words like ``attacked'' to describe the struggle with the fire, which at one time surged so ferociously that firefighters dropped their hoses and equipment and ran for safety.

``It came roaring down like a freight train off the mountain,'' said Ed Pullian, a battalion chief who had slept just seven hours over three nights. ``We didn't have a chance. We kept retreating, retreating, retreating and kept getting overrun.''

Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is essentially a company town for the nuclear laboratory, which employs 7,000 people at buildings scattered throughout the city. It was the base of operations in the 1940s for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb.

At the weapons lab, flames burned trailers and portable buildings and came within 300 yards of a plutonium storage facility. But lab officials insisted that dangerous materials were protected in facilities strong enough to withstand the crash of a 747.

By Friday, the lab appeared out of danger, and all of the facility's major buildings were unscathed, said Richard Burick, deputy lab director for operations.

Insurance agents had arrived near Los Alamos to begin the monumental process of sorting claims. State officials have suggested the costs could go as high as $1 billion, and there has already been talk of federal compensation for the fire that got out of hand.