ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Smoke still hung in the air from a northern New Mexico wildfire that came dangerously close to the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratory, but life was returning to normal Wednesday as thousands of employees showed up for their first day of work in more than a week.
Although the threat to Los Alamos National Laboratory and the town that surrounds it has passed, the largest fire in New Mexico's history continued to burn in remote areas. The fire, which began last month, had forced the closure of the lab along with the evacuation of thousands of residents in nearby communities.
Lab officials say they have a "methodical and careful" plan to resume operations suspended by the blaze known as the Las Conchas fire. "There's going to be a lot of assessing over the next two or three days of where exactly we are on key research projects," lab spokesman Kevin Roark said.
"But that's going to take some time," he added. "It's going to take a couple of weeks at least."
The lab had some 10,000 experiments running that were put on hold because of the fire and the evacuations.
The delayed projects include experiments on two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era 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.
At one point, the fire also raised concerns about possible contamination from material stored or buried on lab grounds. As a precaution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the lab. Samples from air monitors on the ground also showed nothing abnormal in the smoke.
"Since we didn't have any fire on lab property other than one small spot fire, we had literally zero impact to all of our key facilities," Roark said.
The blaze started June 26 when a tree fell onto a power line. The flames exploded on the hillside and then raced across tens of thousands of acres of tinder-dry forest in the Jemez Mountains before firefighters were able to establish control along the lab's southern boundary.
The fire had chewed through more than 204 square miles by Wednesday. Firefighters have managed to contain 40 percent of the blaze by Wednesday night, and only five injuries have been reported among those working on the fire lines. No civilians were injured by the flames.
Lab director Charles McMillan plans to address employees Thursday. He has been telling managers to let workers know that their health, their families and homes should be priorities.
"He's really been very conscious about the stresses, both recognized and unrecognized, in people when they go through something like this. You're worried about all these unknowns," Roark said.
McMillan's message has been for workers to slow down.
"Yes, we're behind in some things but trying to work quickly isn't the answer," Roark said. "Be deliberate, be safe."
In the mountains southwest of the lab, where more than five dozen homes were destroyed, trees were left without branches and the ground was bare except for ash and blackened boulders.
In some spots, the fire had burned so hot and fast that pine needles had been replaced by ghostly white ash that had yet to be blown away by the wind. Other trees had charred trunks with bits of green at their tops.
Some lab employees lost everything, and managers were taking steps to give those workers time to recover, Roark said.
It was more than luck that kept the flames out of the lab and the town, lab officials said. They pointed to the backburns done by firefighters along the lab's southern boundary, the work done along the bottom of Los Alamos canyon to stop the flames and the clearing of fuel on the edges of town.
"Some of the things they did Sunday night quite literally saved the town," Roark said.
Residents on Cochiti Mesa and in Peralta Canyon didn't fare as well. Some got to survey the damage to their properties Tuesday.
Some areas were wiped clean by the fire, leaving behind only the blackened skeletons of thousands of trees and melted pickup trucks, snowmobiles and sheds.
At the lab, officials have been inspecting buildings to ensure they were safe for workers to return. Only a few required cleanup due to things such as rodent infestation.
Residents were also being warned about hungry bears wandering into town after being displaced by the fire. Officials said the highly mobile nature of black bears was making it impossible to determine how many bears might be in town.
Kevin Smith, site manager for Los Alamos for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, said bringing people back to Los Alamos and the lab has gone according to plan but that signs of the fire remain.
He pointed to the helicopter missions being flown out of the town's airport, the lingering smoke and the flare-ups on the hills west of the community.
"It's just the natural order of things," Smith said. "You just take time and get yourself squared away and gradually get back to being focused on operations."
Susan Montoya Bryan can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM