The Las Conchas wildfire forced officials at the Los Alamos, N.M. nuclear laboratory to close the site Monday while stirring up old memories of the Cerro Grande forest fire which happened a decade ago.
The Associated Press said the Cerro Grande fire, 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.
The fire, starting southwest of the laboratory, began at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Jemez Ranger District, Santa Fe National Forest, approximately three miles south of Los Alamos. It started on private land and the cause is unknown and under investigation, according to the National Forest Service.
“The lab was started in 1943 to work on the Manhattan project, which developed the first atomic weapons,” said Daniel Seegmiller, a recent mechanical engineering graduate from BYU. “Today the laboratory’s main focus is nuclear stewardship, which includes maintaining the U.S. aging nuclear stockpile and closely monitoring nuclear activity throughout the world. The lab spreads out over 40 acres and works on all branches of science.”
For some, the fire is inconvenient even though it is not directly in their path.
“It’s annoying because I can’t go to work or go running at all, but I’m not in any real danger where I am,” Seegmiller said. “The part of the lab I work at is closest to the fire, so if it grows much bigger I may not have anywhere to work. That’s probably my biggest worry. We just got updated to a mandatory evacuation. The county emergency system is calling residents and informing them when to leave.”
Approximately 100 residents from Los Alamos and nearby White Rock were under mandatory evacuation. The laboratory did not experience any fire on the site.
“There is no fire on the laboratory,” said Kevin Roark, laboratory spokesman. “The fire was being monitored and the laboratory had been closed.”
A resident raised concerns about the fire.
“They know it was started on a private property so it could have been a campfire or fireworks of some sort,” said Chelsy Smith, a 20-year-old resident of Los Alamos. “It’s so dry here that really any small thing could have been the catalyst. There is something unsettling about how close the fire is. I can see the flames in the distance and the smell of smoke and ash is very present outside. The smoke plume has been blocking out the sun all day and there is an eerie orange glow outside. Though I am not scared that the fire is directly in the path of my home, I am scared about the size and strength that the fire has displayed already. A lot of forest land has been destroyed and many people are being put out of their homes. I hope we can get it under control quickly. Maybe instead of calling in more firefighters, we should all do a rain dance and hope for the best.”