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for people who care about the West

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 SantaFe.com's Storify, which collects news on the fire.

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