New Mexico wildfire poses a double threat


Although I don't live in New Mexico, I worked as a journalist in Colorado's part of the Four Corners region for a while, and spent a fair bit of time in the northern part of the Land of Enchantment.

This connection is perhaps one reason why, on Monday, I became obsessed with the Las Conchas fire. The 60,700-acre (best numbers as of 5 p.m. Tuesday) fire is burning in the Santa Fe National Forest, primarily to the west of Los Alamos. It's nearing two special natural and historical places in northern New Mexico: Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve -- both of which are now closed because of fire risk. But most importantly, the fire threatens Los Alamos National Laboratory, a government research site where nuclear (including 20,000 barrels of plutonium-bearing waste awaiting shipment to storage facilities) and other potentially hazardous material is stored.

Map of wildfires (click to view larger version) courtesy Twitter user IanMSchwartz

If all this has echoes of familiarity to anyone following fire in the West, it's because a similar situation occurred in 2000, when the Cerro Grande fire blew out of its prescribed burn to singe around 47,000 acres and destroy 280 homes.  Although it entered and burned laboratory buildings, it did not reach structures holding nuclear materials or explosives.  (The Cerro fire did, however, burn over the canyons behind the lab where a lot of waste had been dumped during the Cold War, and the rains that followed sent all that contaminated silt into the Rio Grande)

Today, the lab remains closed as the Las Conchas fire continues to roar. Twelve thousand people have been evacuated from the town of Los Alamos. While the facility hosts its own air monitoring stations that check for radiation, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall has asked the EPA to send additional mobile monitors. Residents are scared, understandably, that hazardous materials may be burned and enter the air stream or end up as ash in water sources.

On Monday, laboratory spokesperson Kevin Roark insisted the materials it hosts are safe:

We're very, very good at protecting nuclear materials, from both a safety standpoint and national security standpoint. The buildings where these things are kept are very robust. They are concrete. The walls are very robust. They're big, strong heavy buildings. The threat from wildfire is extremely low.

The majority of the lab's hazardous materials are hosted in very secure bunkers, although the waste awaiting transport is not. This waste, however, is in an area that is mostly dirt and paved surfaces, and thus less likely to catch fire.

Image of fire above Los Alamos National Laboratory courtesy Flickr user lert.

And while officials sound confident about the lab's security, a 2009 report from the Department of Energy (pdf) examining the Los Alamos' Fire Department's abilities to handle the specific hazards of a fire at the laboratory found it was ill-equipped to do so. Between 1997 and 2009, the government paid the fire dept $135 million provide fire suppression services, but the report concluded that firefighters lacked information and training to properly fight fires that might include nuclear materials, chemical and biological agents, explosives, and gases.

As of 2009, the lab and the fire department entered into a new contract. The report placed some hope in new training initiatives spurred by that agreement, but also stated that:

The challenges facing (the laboratory) … are significant, especially given the history of failed attempts to secure the appropriate level of fire suppression services for LANL.

It's been nearly two years since the DOE slammed the lab's preparedness in its report, so maybe the situation has improved.

But the nation just watched Japan's nuclear watchdogs lie persistently about the risks emanating from the Fukushima Daiichi plant after a tsunami compromised its safety measures. High Country News recently ran an article about how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needed prodding from a California state senator to accurately evaluate the earthquake risks to a reactor on the state's coast. So, while Mr. Roark's strong words of confidence in the facility's preparedness add a smidgen of comfort, I'm mostly hoping the Las Conchas fire stays well away from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

So I'll continue to follow the Twitterati (hashtag #nmfire) and read the blogs obsessively, with fingers crossed.

Note: If you want to stay updated, you can also check the official incident site, the Santa Fe New Mexican's aggregated site, and's Storify, which collects news on the fire.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is High Country News's online editor.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 28, 2011 05:58 PM
And we should believe Kevin Roark why? As folks like POGO have documented, there's plenty of reason NOT to believe folks at LANL whenever they talk about safety.
Douglas A. Richardson
Douglas A. Richardson Subscriber
Jun 28, 2011 06:56 PM
Good article! I'm in ABQ, but ran smack into the fire Sunday afternoon up in the Jemez. It started about midday, and exploded over 40,000 acres by the end of its first day. The LANL issue about fighting the fire on site is one thing. But the question of area/regional atmospheric monitoring, beyond the lab itself and the city of Los Alamos, still is another problem. A fire like this pushes smoke/soot/and who knows what else if it ever hit the lab, over most of the state - and maybe further. Keep tuned!
h wyatt
h wyatt
Jun 29, 2011 01:26 AM
I'm disappointed with several parts of your article, especially given that you are an editor. One is your lack of proper credit for the pics in this article. Find the actual source and give proper credit. Second, residents of Los Alamos know the risks of living in Los Alamos. People blow these notions WAY out of proportion. If we didn't want to live here, we wouldn't. (You speak for all of the town, why shouldn't I?) And third, you, no doubt just regurgitating what you've read from other news agencies, fail to report that the LA Fire Department is one of the best fire training departments in the country. Firefighters from across America, and some foreign countries, come to Los Alamos to learn advanced fire-fighting skills.

The best way to sum up this article is: Give credit where credit is due!
Eric McDow
Eric McDow
Jun 29, 2011 06:08 AM
Having lived in Los Alamos the majority of my life I can without doubt say that your article is nonsense. I get tired of people who really don't have a clue about what they're writing about constantly feeling the need to throw their 2 cents worth in. Considering the fact that you have never lived in Los Alamos or even New Mexico you have absolutely no right to write as if you know how we are feeling and that we are "scared" of hazardous materials being released. All we are worried about is that we all have a home to go back to with minimal damage to our national parks, forests and businesses. Considering you know very little about Nuclear energy its waste and how it's stored and secured I think you should stick to writing articles about parades and art fairs.

Good day!
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Jun 29, 2011 09:38 AM
Thanks to all of you for your comments. The substance of my blog post is that, in 2009, a report from the Department of Energy Inspector General's office offered example after example of how the Los Alamos fire department, which contracted with the lab for fire services, was incredibly unprepared for fire at the lab, given the specific conditions firefighters might encounter. The question that report left in my mind, as is reflected in the piece, was this: In the two years since this very severe report, which, even in bureaucratese repeatedly expresses an extreme frustration and concern with the lack of preparedness of the county fire department, has the Los Alamos County Fire Department conducted the necessary training to be well-prepared? And, also, given that government agencies don't have the best track record of public honesty particularly with regards to radioactive material, what makes this situation any different?

We all hope that Kevin Roark is accurate in his statements. He's got an uphill battle in the realm of public opinion, though, which is a somewhat interesting phenomenon in and of itself, and one of the reasons for a free press in America -- that even when officials may be totally on their game and telling the absolute truth, we must remain skeptical and question what they say.

If I were writing an article on the fire, (rather than a relatively quick and dirty blog post whose aim is to raise questions), I would call the county fire dept and the lab to see what measures had been taken after the 2009 DOE report. Because even if the fire doesn't get there this time, there is always going to be another fire. So as a journalist I still have questions, which I am raising in this piece, and, as a resident, if I lived anywhere near possible water pollution or air pollution from the fire could land, as it did after the Cerro Grande fire, I would be asking officials about these risks. They may be low on the probability scale, but they still most certainly exist.