LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – A fast-moving wildfire just south of northern New Mexico's Los Alamos nuclear laboratory has destroyed at least 30 structures, including some homes, and has the potential to grow much larger, fire officials said Monday.
The blaze that began Sunday has forced closure of the nation's pre-eminent nuclear lab while stirring memories of a devastating blaze more than a decade ago that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in the area.
Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said the blaze Sunday night was the most active fire he had seen in his career, forcing residents near Cochiti Mesa and Las Conchas to flee with "nothing but the shirts on their back."
He said at 44,000-acre blaze had destroyed at least 30 structures but it wasn't clear how many were homes.
The fire has the potential to double or triple in size, Tucker said, and firefighters had no idea which direction the 60 mph-plus winds would take it.
"We are preparing for the fire to go in any direction," Tucker said.
Los Alamos National Laboratory was closed Monday as the blaze burned within a mile of its southern edge. And the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock were under voluntary evacuation orders.
Tucker said he did not anticipate the fire moving into town, "but we cannot eliminate that potential so we must be ready to react to it."
Officials said that more than 100 residents in the area evacuated their homes as the fire swelled to 68 square miles and loomed just a mile southwest of Los Alamos Sunday night. While overnight winds from the northwest kept the blaze from moving onto lab property, forecasts called for a change in wind patterns by midday.
The famed lab, where scientists developed and tested the first atomic bomb during World War II, activated its emergency operations center overnight and cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.
Officials said all hazardous and radioactive materials were being protected.
The blaze started on private land about 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos. Flames and smoke could be seen from the outskirts of Albuquerque, about 80 miles away.
On Monday morning, the Pajarito plateau upon which the lab sits was awash in a thick haze, while a charred stench permeated the area. On the southwestern edge of the plateau, white smoke filled the canyons above Cochiti reservoir and on the north end heavy black columns of smokes were rising in the air.
Cars headed down the two-lane highway that snakes from Los Alamos to Pojoaque were stuffed with belongings as residents fled the blaze.
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 spokesman Kevin Roark said no contaminants were released in the Cerro Grande fire.
Environmental specialists from the lab were mobilized and monitoring air quality on Monday, he said, but the main concern was smoke.
Still, there were questions about whether firefighters would be prepared if the fire moved into main areas of the lab.
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 LANL.
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.
Greg Mello, with the anti-nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said the group doesn't have enough information "to formulate any views on safety at this point."
"It is important to remind ourselves that the site has natural hazards ... and Murphy's Law is still about the best enforced law in the state," he said.
Meanwhile, the biggest blaze in Arizona history was 82 percent contained after burning through 538,000 acres in the White Mountains in northeast Arizona. The fire started May 29 and has destroyed 32 homes. It's believed to have been caused by a campfire.
And in Colorado, about 100 firefighters are battling a wildfire that broke out in a canyon northwest of Boulder.
Fire officials have put 340 homeowners on standby to evacuate. No structures are immediately threatened by the fire.
In southern Colorado, hot, windy weather has caused a wildfire that's been burning since June 12 to spread. The Duckett fire grew by about 400 acres over the weekend but it's not threatening any homes. Most the growth has been in a steep, rugged terrain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The fire is burning on 7-square miles and is 80 percent contained.
Associated Press writer Jeri Clausing contributed from Albuquerque.