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Video: Fire continues to threaten nuclear lab

msnbc.com news services
updated 6/29/2011 12:59:01 AM ET 2011-06-29T04:59:01

New Mexico fire managers scrambled Tuesday to reinforce crews battling a third day against an out-of-control blaze at the edge of one of the top U.S. nuclear weapons production centers.

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The fire's leading edge burned to within a few miles of a dump site where some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste, including clothing and equipment, is stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, fire officials said.

The town of Los Alamos, home to about 12,000 people, was evacuated Monday afternoon as a precaution.

The wildfire — which has burned 60,000 acres, or 93 square miles, in just two days — was as close as 50 feet from the Los Alamos National Laboratory grounds on Tuesday afternoon.

On Monday, a spot fire at the lab was quickly contained, and lab officials said no contamination was released.

Lab officials and fire managers said they're confident the flames won't reach key buildings or areas where radioactive waste is stored in barrels above ground.

Video: Concern over nuclear lab stockpiles (on this page)

For the stored waste, officials say a last resort would include spraying foam on the barrels to ensure they aren't damaged by fire.

Teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Radiological Assistance Program were headed to the scene to help assess any nuclear or radiological hazards, said Kevin Smith, Los Alamos Site Office manager.

"The ... teams' work will provide another level of assurance that the community is safe from potential radiological releases as the fire progresses," Smith said in a statement.

The lab will be closed through at least Wednesday, with only essential employees permitted back onto laboratory property.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos, for many stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in town.

Flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The facility cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.

The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. They include research facilities, as well as waste disposal sites. Some facilities, including the administration building, are in the community of Los Alamos, while others are several miles away from the town.

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The spot fire scorched a section known as Tech Area 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists were monitoring air quality, but the main concern was smoke.

The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3.5 miles from a dumpsite where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a dump site in southern New Mexico.

"The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It's a concern for everybody," said Joni Arends, executive director of the group.

Arends' group also worried that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil on lab property where experiments were conducted years ago. Over the years, burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface, she said.

Lab officials at first declined to confirm that such drums were on the property but, in a statement early Tuesday, lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said such drums are stored in a section of the complex known as Area G. She said the drums contain cleanup from Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

She said the drums were on a paved area with few trees nearby and would be safe even if a fire reached the storage area.

As of midday Tuesday, the flames were about two miles away from the material.

"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," Rosendorf said.

The wildfire, which began Sunday, stirred memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings.

"The hair on the back of your neck goes up," Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said of first seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. "I saw that plume and I thought, 'Oh my god here we go again.'"

Video: Thousands evacuate from towns near atomic site (on this page)

"We're just hoping for the best," Vivian Levy, a resident since the 1970s said Monday as she packed her car and her animals — again.

"Last time, I just walked out of my house and said goodbye, and that it was going to be OK," she said before breaking down in tears. "I'm doing the same thing this time. It's going to be OK. I'm prepared to say goodbye."

The blaze also was threatening Frijoles Canyon, which is home to a number of sacred Native American archaeological sites. Also threatened, Tucker said, was the recently restored Bandelier National Monument.

Los Alamos National Lab was established during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy's inspector general issued a report that said Los Alamos County firefighters weren't sufficiently trained to handle the unique fires they could face with hazardous or radioactive materials at the site.

Lab and fire department officials at the time said the report focused too much on past problems and not enough on what had been done to resolve them. Some problems also were noted in previous reports.

Slideshow: Inside Los Alamos National Laboratory (on this page)

On Monday, lab and fire officials said they were confident that if the flames reached lab property they would be able to protect its sensitive facilities.

"We're in a much better place than we were 11 years ago," said Rich Marquez, executive director of the lab, noting the lab has thinned out potential fire hazards and has enacted a number of emergency protocols.

The fire was eerily similar to one of the most destructive fires in New Mexico history. That fire, the Cerro Grande, burned some 47,000 acres — 73 square miles — in May 2000 and caused more than $1 billion in property damage.

About 400 homes and 100 buildings on lab property were destroyed in that fire. That blaze also raised concerns about toxic runoff and radioactive smoke, although lab officials said no contaminants were released during it.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Wildfires char Southwest US

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  1. A fire crew member is seen as firefighters are deployed in order to attack hotspots from the Las Conchas wildfire near Los Alamos, N.M. on June 30. The blaze has charred nearly 93,000 acres of thick pine woodlands on the slopes of the Jemez Mountains since erupting on Sunday near the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was poised to become New Mexico's largest ever wildfire by day's end. (Eric Draper / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A fire truck drives past trees charred in the Las Conchas fire in Los Alamos, N.M. on June 30. Firefighters were confident Thursday that they had stopped the advance of the wildfire that headed toward the Los Alamos nuclear lab and the nearby town. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A wave of smoke billows as the Las Conchas Fire creeps into New Mexico's Cochiti canyon area on Wednesday, June 29. (Morgan Petroski / Albuquerque Journal) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Los Alamos Assistant Fire Chief Michael Thompson orders his men to pack up their hoses as flames from the fire move towards them on June 29. The government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory as the wildfire burned at its doorstep, putting thousands of scientific experiments on hold for days. (Eddie Moore / The Albuquerque Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. These deer seem oblivious to smoke from the Las Conchas fire on June 29. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. What seems to be a river of smoke winds its way through Cochiti Canyon on June 29. (Morgan Petroski / Albuquerque Journal) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tom Whitson carries water and Gatorade that he is donating to fire evacuees on June 29 in Santa Fe, N.M. Whitson had to place his donations in the hallway because the room with the fire donations was getting too full. (Luis Sanchez Saturno / The New Mexican via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A wall of smoke rises as the Las Conchas Fire burns through a canyon on June 29. (Morgan Petroski / Albuquerque Journal) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Firefighters Tim Adams, right, and Abraham Diaz, both of Apple Valley, Calif., carry a fire hose while battling the Las Conchas fire on June 29. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Alex Lopez, center, plays baseball with his sister Sugey while smoke from the Las Conchas fire covers the sky in Espanola, N.M., on June 29. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker shows a map of the Las Conchas fire during a news conference in Los Alamos on June 29. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Los Alamos Fire Chief Douglas Tucker (right) talks to the residents of Los Alamos during a meeting at the White Rock Baptist Church in White Rock, New Mexico about the Las Conchas fires, on June 29. About 12,000 people were placed under mandatory evacuation. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. National Guardsmen block one of the roads leading into the mountain area where the Las Conchas Fire burns on Wednesday, June 29. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The sun rises near Los Alamos on June 29, shrouded in smoke from the Las Conchas fire. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flames from the Las Conchas Fire burn in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos on the morning of June 28. (Eddie Moore / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Firefighter Chris Teters, of Portland, Ore., mops up hot spots in Pajarito Mountain ski area near Los Alamos, N.M. on June 28. Firefighters battled a vicious wildfire that was spreading through the mountains above the northern New Mexico town. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A water truck sprays along the road in Los Alamos Canyon on June 28 as workers cleared the forest of brush and fallen fuel wood in hopes of slowing the fire should it crest the hill and head toward the city. (Jim Thompson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Morrison family, Dee, top left, Taylor, 4, right, Bob, and Jeni, center, pack up their belongings following a mandatory evacuation ordered for Los Alamos, N.M., as the rapidly-growing Las Conchas wildfire approaches on Monday, June 27. (Craig Fritz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Flames from the Las Conchas fire burn in the hills above Los Alamos National Laboratory, a vast complex that houses research laboratories and a plutonium facility, on June 27. Authorities said there was little threat to sensitive areas of the 28,000-acre complex, where explosives are stored in underground concrete and steel bunkers. (Craig Fritz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Carissa Pittman consoles her daughter, Emily, 15, while her husband, Pete, in the car and son, Allen, 21, prepare to leave Los Alamos because of the wildfireon June 27. Thousands of residents calmly fled Monday from the mesa-top town. (Jane Phillips / The New Mexican via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The sun filters through thick smoke from a wildfire burning near Los Alamos on June 27. (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Joel Montoya carries shoes and a shirts to his car as he evacuates his White Rock, N.M. home due to the wildfire on June 26. Los Alamos County authorities have issued voluntary evacuation orders for both Los Alamos and White Rock. (Luis Sanchez Saturno / The New Mexican via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Dillon Kerry looks through the charred remains of his home, which was destroyed by a wildfire, in Stoneham, Texas on Friday, June 24. Federal and local officials on Thursday lifted the last of the evacuation orders issued during the fight against the most-destructive wildfire in Southeast Texas. (David J. Phillip / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Fire crews from Rio Rico and Helmet Peak mop up hot spots in a storage trailer after the Monument Fire burned through Sierra Vista, Ariz., on Friday. (Greg Bryan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The Rio Bravo Hot Shots, of Kern County, Ca. work their there way up a trail to reach the fire line at the track fire northeast of Raton, N.M., Friday. Along the New Mexico-Colorado border, the winds Thursday pushed one fire toward breaks that had been carved into the rugged landscape by bulldozers. Crews had anticipated the fire's movement and were prepared to hold the line with help from helicopters and air tankers. (Rick Bowmer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Flames are seen over homes in Sierra Vista, Ariz., on Thursday. (Greg Bryan / Arizona Daily Star via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Helicopters leave after replenishing their water supply as they battle the Monument Fire in Hereford near Sierra Vista, Ariz. on Thursday afternoon. (Beatrice Richardson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Jackelyn Colon takes a moment with her son Omar Gonzalez, 1, at a shelter near Sierra Vista, Ariz., on Thursday, June 16, as the Monument fire continues to grow. The two had to flee their home on Wednesday. Forty homes were destroyed or damaged three days into the fire (Dean Knuth / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A helicopter dumps fire retardant on a fire north of Raton, N.M., on June 16. The fire had charred nearly 26,000 acres before enough progress was made to allow evacuees back to their homes. (Rick Bowmer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A burnt structure is shown following the track fire north of Raton, N.M., on Thursday. (Rick Bowmer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. The Monument fire burns north toward Sierra Vista, Ariz., on June 15. (David Sanders / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A plane drops fire retardant to protect a neighborhood near Sierra Vista, Ariz., on Tuesday, June 14. (Greg Bryan/Arizona Daily Star / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A helicopter picks up fire retardant at Luna Lake on the eastern edge of the Wallow fire outside Alpine, Ariz., near the state border west of the town of Luna, N.M., on June 14. The wildfire that has roared out of control for more than two weeks through the pine forests of eastern Arizona set a record on Tuesday as the largest in state history, having consumed over 469,000 acres. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A wildland firefighter works at a hot spot on the eastern edge of the Wallow fire outside Alpine, Ariz. on June 14. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A slurry bomber drops its load while fighting the Track fire at the Raton Pass in Northern New Mexico on June 13. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Albuquerque Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. John Evans, an employee of the Arby's restaurant, puts up a thank you message for the firefighters who helped save the town of Eagar, Ariz., from the massive Wallow fire on June 13. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A state police officer mans one of the entrance ramps of I-25 after the Track Fire at Raton Pass, N.M. closed the roadway on June 13. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Albuquerque Journal via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A home burned in the Wallow fire is seen in Greer, Ariz., on June 13. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Elks escape the wildfire in the forest around the Lee Valley recreational area in the Apache National Forest during back burn operations as the Wallow fire continues to burn June 12 in Big Lake, Ariz. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A butterfly hovers over a flower as smoke rises around the Lee Valley recreational area in the Apache National Forest during back burn operations as the Wallow fire continues to burn, on June 12 in Big Lake, Ariz. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Ralph Geisler, left, wife Stephanie, center, and their son-in-law Dustin Powers unload their belongings as they return home in Springerville, Ariz., June 12. Roughly 7,000 residents of two eastern Arizona towns who evacuated last week as a wildfire loomed nearby were allowed to return home Sunday as officials expressed confidence that they were making progress in their battle against the huge blaze that has been burning since May. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Smoke rises as firefighters battle the Wallow Fire in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Ariz., June 12. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Evacuees Jimmy Joy, left, and his daughter Brittney, both of Blue, Ariz., look at a map of the Wallow Fire in a shelter set up at a high school in Lakeside, Ariz. on Saturday, June 11. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Firefighters Wes Odom, left, Tarcy Wright and Cpt. Jimmy Neisen from Surprise, Ariz., work to put out a hot spot in a tree trunk on June 11, in Greer, Ariz. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Tom Hansen, a 74-year-old evacuee from Springerville, Ariz., takes a nap in a shelter in Lakeside, Ariz., June 11. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. A firefighter sets a backburn to fight the Wallow Fire in Nutrioso, Ariz., on June 10. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Smoke rises from the Wallow Fire as it burns toward homes south of Eagar, Ariz., on June 9. After reportedly being sparked by a campfire, the blaze has become the second-largest wildfire in state history and is still growing. (Rob Schumacher / The Arizona Republic via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. An emergency vehicle is seen as smoke from the Wallow Fire covers highway 60 in Springerville, Ariz., on June 9. Several mountain communities have evacuated in advance of the fire, and a utility that supplies power to customers in southern New Mexico and west Texas issued warnings of possible power interruptions. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Firefighters walk up a hillside in Eagar on June 9. A spot fire at the edge of the larger blaze prompted the few residents left in Springerville and the neighboring community of Eagar to flee. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Tom Hansen, left, and John Deublein, who both evacuated from Springerville, talk outside Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop-Lakeside, Ariz., on June 9. The school has been set up as a temporary evacuation center for residents affected by the wildfire. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. A firefighter starts a backburn operation in an attempt to control the Wallow Fire along Highway 260 near Eagar on June 9. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Yellow police tape indicating that the residents have evacuated hangs on a trailer home in Springerville on June 9. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Amelia Hernandez, left, chats with Becky Coffman who evacuated from Eager with her seven children, on June 9. The two met up at the evacuation shelter at Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside Arizona, west of the fire. Hernandez teaches some of the children at the Headstart center in Eager. The wildfire has consumed 386,000 acres of forest land since it began 11 days before. The massive wildfire continued to spread in eastern Arizona threatening high voltage electricity lines that transmit power from a nuclear power station to more than 300,000 customers in New Mexico and Texas. (Rick D'elia / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Fire crew members sharpen their tools as they prepare for a backburn operation in Eagar, Ariz., on Wednesday, June 8. A raging forest fire in eastern Arizona has scorched an area the size of Phoenix, threatening thousands of residents and emptying towns as the flames moved toward New Mexico. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. An aerial view of the Wallow fire on June 8 from the MODIS instrument on board the Aqua satellite. The blaze has blackened about 389,000 acres and destroyed 11 buildings, primarily in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. No serious injuries have been reported. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. Transmission lines from the Springerville Generating Station stretch south toward the plume of smoke being generated by the Wallow Fire burning near Springerville, Ariz., on June 8. The raging forest fire in eastern Arizona that has forced thousands from their homes headed Wednesday for a pair of transmission lines that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people as far east as Texas. (Susan Montoya Bryan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. From left, Cheyann Alba, her uncle Mark White and cousin Chelsea Soderberg evacuate with their family's horses as the Wallow Fire approaches in Eagar, Ariz., on June 8. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Firefighter Jan Koch poses for a portrait with his face covered in soot after working the Wallow Wildfire in Springerville, Ariz., on June 7. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Miles of smoke billow skyward from the Wallow Fire on June 7 near Greer, Arizona. Officials say the blaze has already burned 486 square miles and winds have been driving the flames 5 to 8 miles a day since the fire began a week ago. (Ross D. Franklin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Wayne Lutz takes a break from raking dead grass as he tries to protect his house from the Wallow Wildfire in Eagar, Ariz. on June 7. A stubborn wildfire in eastern Ariz. that has forced the evacuation of as many as 3,000 people flared out of control for a 10th day on Tuesday and advanced on two more mountain towns near New Mexico. At midday Tuesday, fire officials said the so-called Wallow Fire had charred more than 311,000 acres since it erupted on May 29, and now ranks as the second-largest wildfire in Arizona's history. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. Public information officer Theresa Mendoza walks on a ridge top as the Wallow Fire burns behind her outside of Eagar, Ariz. on June 8. A raging forest fire in eastern Ariz. has scorched an area the size of Phoenix, threatening thousands of residents and emptying towns as the flames race toward New Mexico. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. A view of the Wallow Wildfire is pictured in the distance seen along the U.S. Route 180 as smoke fills the sky in Luna, New Mexico on June 6. A wildfire that has charred more than 350 square miles in eastern Ariz. forced the evacuation of a third town on Monday and crept near populated areas along the New Mexico border as it raged out of control for a ninth day. The so-called Wallow Fire, burning about 250 miles northeast of Phoenix and stretching to near the Arizona-New Mexico border, ranks as the third-largest fire on record in Ariz. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. Fire crew members from Redding, Calif., prepare for a back burn operation during the Wallow fire in Eagar, Ariz., Wednesday, June 8. A raging forest fire in eastern Ariz. has scorched an area the size of Phoenix, threatening thousands of residents and emptying towns as the flames raced toward New Mexico. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. Southwest Area Fire Management public information officer Jim Whittington points to a fire map during a news conference on June 8 in Springerville, Ariz.. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in eastern Ariz. prompting evacuations by residents. Smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eager and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people north of the fire. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Former mayor and volunteer Kay Dyson listens to a press conference about the Wallow fire on June 8 in Springerville, Ariz. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in eastern Arizona prompting evacuations by residents. Smoke loomed over the twin towns of Eager and Springerville, home to about 7,000 people north of the fire. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  66. A water dropping helicopter swoops by the burning Wallow Fire outside of Eagar, Ariz., Wednesday, June 8. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  67. A firefighter sleeps at the incident command post for the Wallow fire June 8 in Springerville, Ariz.. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in eastern Arizona prompting evacuations by residents. (Eric Thayer / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  68. Smoke from the Wallow Wildfire surround trees in Eagar, Ariz. June 7. (Joshua Lott / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: A fire crew member is seen as fire crews are deployed in order to attack hotspots from the Las Conchas wildfire near Los Alamos, New Mexico
    Eric Draper / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (68) Wildfires char Southwest US
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