Fire Sweeps Through Los Alamos, N.M.

Thursday, May 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — A firestorm swept through the abandoned streets of Los Alamos today, burning as many as 400 homes, some down to their foundations, while frustrated firefighters braced for wind gusts up to 60 mph.

All 11,000 people in Los Alamos were evacuated, and this morning another 7,000 fled suburban White Rock, where many evacuees had once sought safety.

``We weren't ready down here. We were the refugee center for our friends,'' Kirk Christensen said as he and his wife loaded their camper and headed into a sea of cars crawling down the highway. They were headed for a friend's house in Santa Fe, to camp in the yard.

Brick fireplaces were all that remained of some homes in Los Alamos. A basketball hoop remained intact on one driveway, its net still hanging but singed. The house was destroyed, the garage door was split in half and crumbled on the driveway.

Rep. Tom Udall, whose district includes Los Alamos, said federal officials estimated that 300 to 400 homes had been damaged. No injuries have been reported, but President Clinton declared New Mexico a major disaster area.

At the storied Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, for the first time shut down by fire, flames singed a research building but it did not ignite. Explosives and radioactive material were protected in fireproof facilities, lab officials said.

``We can assure the country and New Mexico that our nuclear materials are safe,'' said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico congressman.

The fire was set by the National Park Service a week ago to clear brush, but quickly flared out of control, racing through stands of ponderosa pine. It had burned less than 4,000 acres Wednesday morning, but after being fueled by 50 mph wind gusts Wednesday it grew to 18,000 acres.

The fire was too dangerous to battle head on, firefighters said. They pulled back as flames advanced, moving their command post to relative safety.

``This fire's got a mind of its own,'' county spokesman Bill Lehman said late Wednesday. Firefighters were reluctant to back off, Lehman said, but ``there was just nothing we could do, because of the wind.''

Water-bombing helicopters and airplanes dropping pink fire retardant bombarded the blaze, hoping to narrow its westward and northward thrust. Today's high wind could limit the use of firefighting aircraft.

Firefighters battling structure fires were frustrated Wednesday night by a lack of water pressure, and more water had to be trucked in.

Chris Judson, a fire information officer, predicted today would be a ``nail-biter.''

``I guess in another day or so, we're going to have a calm day at some point, but it's going to be a tough pull until then,'' Judson said. ``And there's no moisture in the foreseeable future.''

Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is essentially a company town for the federal lab. It sprang up in the 1940s as the base of operations for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb. There are still military barracks and military-style housing in Los Alamos, along with relatively upscale, newer developments.

Neighborhood by neighborhood, the town burned Wednesday and into today.

House after house filled with fire, glowed like jack-o-lanterns, then exploded in pulsing orange flames. Just after sundown, flames marched to a tree-covered ridge overlooking downtown, lighting the night sky.

As evacuees fled to shelters, hotels and motels outside Los Alamos, firefighter Sam Schroeder stood outside one flaming home.

``This is bizarre — this house won't be touched,'' she said, pointing to the house next door. ``This one will go all the way to the ground.''

About one-third of the 10,000 residents in western Espanola, in a valley 10 miles below Los Alamos, were advised to leave because of flames sparked by embers from the Los Alamos blaze.

The Los Alamos laboratory declared a general emergency at 11 p.m. Wednesday, saying there were grass and brush fires at three of its research facilities. A weapons-engineering facility was swept by fire, but the masonry building was left intact, lab officials said.

Public Service Company of New Mexico has shut off natural gas service to the lab, which was closed for the fourth straight day today, along with public schools and county offices. Public schools also were closed in nearby Espanola and Pojoaque, and Santa Fe High School was closed as evacuees streamed onto the campus.

James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, planned to tour Los Alamos today, along with Richardson and New Mexico's senators, Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici.

Domenici said the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has asked the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative branch, to investigate the decision to set the fire.

``Somebody made a mistake and obviously we have to find out who,'' Domenici said. ``Did someone do something that should not have been done considering the dry conditions and the wind?''

In south-central New Mexico, a fire started Sunday by a campfire burned more than 8,600 forested acres in the Ruidoso area and forced the evacuation of several neighborhoods. The fire, primarily in the Lincoln National Forest, was 35 percent contained early this afternoon.

A small fire flared up 100 miles northwest of Los Alamos in the Santa Fe National Forest. That blaze was burning in ponderosa pine trees at the edge of the Jicarilla Apache reservation.

A fire also scorched more than 100 acres of cottonwood, Russian olive trees and salt cedar brush along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico. Firefighters contained the blaze and were watching for any possible flare-ups.