Don't keep the home fires burning

By Daniel Holz | June 28, 2011 3:31 pm

Less than ten miles from my house in Santa Fe, a wildfire is raging. The Pacheco Canyon fire has burned 10,000 acres, and is currently 15% contained. Due to wind direction and topography it is being funneled into the Santa Fe forest and away from town. Despite some spectacular plumes of smoke, the fire has had surprisingly little impact on Santa Fe. The last week has been reminiscent of a Bruegel painting. Everyone going about their business, oblivious to the conflagration just outside of town.

The complacency was broken Sunday afternoon when another wildfire erupted just west of Los Alamos. Within 24 hours the Las Conchas fire had grown to 50,000 acres, and was lapping at the boundary of Los Alamos National Lab (where I work). The fire momentarily crossed into lab property, and burned roughly an acre before being extinguished. It is to be noted that the lab is vast, covering an area of 36 square miles (93 square km). The fire was in one of the more remote parts of lab property, and burned less than 100th of one percent of the lab, with no buildings affected. The lab has been closed since Monday, and nobody knows when it’ll reopen. The town of Los Alamos was abruptly evacuated yesterday afternoon. Residents scrambled to put everything of value into their cars, and then drove off the hill with a huge plume of smoke at their backs. A decade ago a similar fire burned over 200 homes in Los Alamos, and incinerated much of the surrounding forest. Back then over 400 families returned to find their homes, and everything in them, reduced to ash. The memories of the previous fire weigh heavy.

As if the evacuation of almost 20,000 people weren’t enough to focus the mind, an additional concern is that the fire might sweep through the laboratory. Los Alamos has radioactive material on site, and although there are only modest quantities of truly dangerous material, it would nonetheless be disastrous to have this material compromised.

With Fukushima still unfolding there is a temptation to dwell on the impossibility of defending against mother nature’s wrath, and the attendant dangers of generating nuclear material. Although there is an interesting discussion to be had on this topic, the question of the moment is the status of the wildfire near Los Alamos. As usual, it is incomprehensibly difficult to get up-to-date information. Presumably the fire crews have a clear idea of the location of the fire line, and where the fire is headed, but none of this data appears to be publicly available. The best resources I’ve found are inciweb (Pacheco and Las Conchas), NMFire, and SWCC.

The lab has had years to prepare for this eventuality, and thus far there does not appear to be any significant source of concern. I am told that the Los Alamos lab perimeter is secure, that the fire is not presently threatening Los Alamos townsite, and that the immediate threat has been mitigated. But until the summer “monsoon” rains start in earnest (we had our first few drops of the summer yesterday afternoon), the progress of the fire is dictated just as much by the weather and wind as it is by human intervention. At present the Los Alamos fire is 0% contained.

For the moment an eerie calm has settled. It is a beautiful day here. The winds have subsided. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable 85F (29C). Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and the lab all seem to be out of danger for the time being. Besides the thousands of Los Alamos refugees, and the blaring headlines atop the local newspapers (“Los Alamos Under Siege“), day-to-day life continues as if nothing is amiss.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Personal

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