LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – An erratic northern New Mexico wildfire grew larger Thursday — pushing north while also creeping into a canyon that descends into Los Alamos — as fire officials remained hopeful that they could halt the spread of the blaze before it reached town.
Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker noted that conditions in the area are so dry that the fire, which had charred nearly 145 square miles, was burning downed trees that were scorched in the huge Cerro Grande fire in 2000.
"We're seeing fire behavior that I've never seen before," Tucker said.
The fire also burned through moisture-rich aspen trees above Los Alamos, allowing the fire to push into a canyon that descends from that mountain into town and runs past the old Manhattan Project site, where the first atomic bomb was developed during World War II. That site is not on the property of the nearby Los Alamos nuclear lab.
Meanwhile, residents of Los Alamos, who fled the town earlier in the week under an evacuation order, wouldn't be allowed back home until Monday at the earliest, Tucker said.
Despite the erratic nature of the blaze, fire officials remained confident that they could keep it from spreading onto the Los Alamos National Laboratory or into the town. They made progress on some fronts along its southern border Thursday even as the fire pushed northward toward land considered sacred by a Native American tribe.
"Today is a good day for parts of this fire. It's a bad day for other parts of this fire. Our hearts go out to the folks that are suffering the bad part," Tucker said.
The fire has chewed up tens of thousands of acres a day since it started Sunday, charring a total of nearly 145 square miles, or 92,735 acres. Crews have contained only 3 percent of the fire. Fire officials believe the blaze will soon surpass the Dry Lakes fire, which burned more than 94,000 acres of the Gila National Forest in 2003.
They were bracing for 40 mph gusts as spot fires continued to pop up Thursday afternoon.
Lab officials were trying to determine the extent of how experiments at the facility have been affected by a shutdown caused by the fast-moving fire. Lab Director Charles McMillan said teams will quickly figure out how things stand as soon as they're able to return.
Though the physical risk to the lab from the fire apparently had lessened Thursday, fire operations chief Jerome McMillan said "the laboratory is not just a bunch of buildings. It's not just a bunch of equipment. The laboratory is the people of the laboratory. That is the fundamental asset that this laboratory has and those people live all over northern New Mexico," he said.
McMillian was concerned that some employees lost homes in the mountains south and west of Los Alamos and homes of others would be threatened as the fire moved north.
The lab has been closed since Monday, when the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas — 12,000 people in all — were evacuated. There was no word on when it would reopen, but it was expected to remain idle at least through Friday.
Officials said the Los Alamos National Laboratory has some 10,000 experiments running at the same time that have been put on hold.
"We have a range of projects, some of them have shorter time deliverable, some of them are years to decades," said McMillan, who last month took over management of the lab that sits atop desert mesas.
The delayed projects include experiments run on two supercomputers, the Roadrunner and Cielo. The National Nuclear Security Administration's three national laboratories — Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore — all share computing time on Cielo, which is among the world's fastest computers.
Also delayed are studies on how climate change affects ocean currents, and on extending the life of 1960s-era B61 nuclear bombs.
The lab also works on such topics as renewable energy and particle physics, solar flares, forensics on terrorist attacks, and studying the AIDS virus at the molecular level to help scientists develop strategies for developing vaccines.
On Monday, about an acre of lab property burned, raising concerns about possible contamination from material stored or buried on lab grounds. As a precaution, the government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the lab. Samples analyzed so far from some of the lab's monitors show nothing abnormal in the smoke.
Lab authorities described the monitoring from the air as a precaution, and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some in surrounding communities feared.
"The nuclear materials are secure," said Penn State University nuclear engineering professor Barry Scheetz, who has served on National Academy of Sciences nuclear review boards and has been to Los Alamos several times. "There's multiple redundancy in the protection of this material."
Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste — gloves, tools, even paper notes and other contaminated items — about two miles from the fire.
Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums, and that the steel containers can in any case withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.
Meanwhile, the economic impact of shutting down the town was already weighing on the minds of Los Alamos officials and business owners.
The lab's employees account for up to 90 percent of the town's commerce, said Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, as well as the local economic development group.
Holsapple did not have an estimate on what the impact would be from the latest fire.
Following a major wildfire in May 2000, the federal government paid out tens of millions to hundreds of businesses to compensate for financial and property loss. Congress approved the payments because the fire was started as a controlled burn on federal land, and got out of control.
"Lightning is not supposed to strike twice in one place," Holsapple said of the latest town evacuation. "Their preparation in general is better that you would find because of people's experience with this kind of thing."
This time around, that federal government help isn't available.
Gov. Susana Martinez said the state is helping by delaying collection of sales taxes from business affected by the fire.
Other measures being offered to Los Alamos businesses by Holsapple's groups include making interest payments for business loans, as well as support to help business restart.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque and Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.