Subj: Los Alamos Danger Admitted
Date: 5/13/00 3:19:26 AM Pacific Daylight Time

Los Alamos Danger Admitted

Govt.: Fire Came Close to Radioactive Waste, But Lab Is Safe

May 13 — As calmer winds helped to slow down the fire that has charred
33,000 acres in New Mexico, the government indicated for the first time
that the flames came dangerously close to radioactive waste at the Los
Alamos National Laboratory.

Los Alamos residents are enraged.
For days, the Energy Department has assured Los Alamos residents that
the flames were nowhere near radioactive material at the nuclear weapons
lab. But, ABCNEWS has learned, Energy officials admitted the blaze came
close to an area that stores waste contaminated with radioactive
Firefighters have been successful in their battle to keep the
flames from radioactive and hazardous waste, and federal officials
insist there is still no danger to the laboratory. But New Mexico health
officials are replacing radiation monitors destroyed by the fire so they
can watch radiation levels, some of which have been above normal.

Lab to Reopen
Lab Director John Browne said last night that the lab will resume
limited operations Monday to plan for a phased reopening.
The admission came as Los Alamos residents and New Mexico
government officials began demanding that the National Park Service be
held accountable for the damage and arrange financial compensation to
displaced homeowners. The Park Service deliberately set the fire last
week to clear dead brush at the Bandelier National Monument, south of
Los Alamos. Park Service workers thought they could control the fire,
but high winds and dry conditions fanned the flames, causing them to
lose control of the blaze.
By law, the Forest Service must attempt to collect payments from
individuals who start forest fires. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson
yesterday said that the National Park Service should be treated the same
“The Forest Service, for years, has been very aggressively pursuing
civilians who perpetrate fire damage,” Johnson said. “Yes, they [The
National Park Service] should have the same standard.”
While expressing sympathy towards local residents, Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt refused to say whether the Park Service should
pay for the fire damage.
“The issues of liability are the province of the attorney general
and the Justice Department,” Babbitt said.
The government also announced it will temporarily stop the practice
of deliberately setting fires to clear brush in dry areas of the
country. Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck said the suspension will
last for 30 days and will apply to places west of the 100th meridian, a
line that runs roughly along West Texas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
“It is an appropriate time to pause and say to public … we can
assure you that we are taking advantage of whatever there is to learn of
this incident and that we are not taking any unnecessary risks,” said
Dombeck said exceptions will be allowed in areas where there is a
low risk that the fires will surge out of control.

Helpful Weather
Meanwhile, firefighters started to gain some ground last night. Fire
information officer Martin Chavez said the blaze was about 5 percent
contained by late last night. “It’s just kind of meandering around,” he
Crews used bulldozers and hand tools to cut brush and dig trenches
in still-standing neighborhoods, fearful the flames still might take an
unexpected turn.
Overnight, other crews took advantage of lower temperatures and
higher humidity to burn trees, grass and brush about five miles from
town, hoping to deprive the fire of fuel.
“I can say with a high degree of confidence that we will not have
more structures burned in Los Alamos or White Rock,” said Doug
MacDonald, the Los Alamos fire chief.
National Park Superintendent Ray Weaver, who has taken
responsibility for the fire, has been placed on paid leave pending an
In Los Alamos, 260 structures were burned, including 110 single-
and multi-family homes that were destroyed, said Scott Sticha, an
information officer with the National Park Service. The city’s schools,
municipal buildings and central business district have not been damaged,
he said.
A total of 33,000 acres have burned and 25,000 residents were
evacuated from Los Alamos. There were additional evacuations in the
nearby communities of West Espanola and Abiabiqiu. Damage estimates
reached $1 billion.
The National Weather Service said winds will range from 10 mph to
20 mph today.
National Park Superintendent Ray Weaver, who has taken
responsibility for the fire, has been placed on paid leave pending an

Some Escape Unscathed
While most residents were not allowed to return, some, like Margrethe
and Bill Feldman, made it back to find their homes still standing.
“It was relief. It was joy,” said Mrs. Feldman. “I was prepared to find
just nothing and all of a sudden, there it is.”
The city of Espanola, some 20 miles northeast of Los Alamos,
ordered residents on the west side of the Rio Grande river to evacuate.
( Geographix)

Brick fireplaces and chimneys were the only things remaining of some
homes, while others were left virtually unscathed. A basketball hoop
remained intact on one driveway, its net singed but still hanging.
But many of those who fled Los Alamos on Wednesday still faced the
anxiety of not knowing whether their homes were still standing. In a Red
Cross shelter at a high school in Santa Fe, anxious residents crowded
around TV sets, watching round-the-clock news footage to see whether
their homes were still there. Others logged on to four computers at the
shelter to scan a list posted on the county Web site of destroyed
A few dialed their home numbers. A busy signal was taken as a bad
“We called our home and it was ringing, and we called a few of our
relatives’ homes and it was ringing. We felt that’s a good indication
our houses are still standing,” said James Robinson, who sat at the
shelter with his wife and five children, the youngest 13 months old.
Relief workers had planned to escort some residents to their homes
today to pick up clothes, medicine and other belongings but later
decided the town remained too unsafe.
ABC affiliate KOAT in Albuquerque, N.M., ABCNEWS’ Rod Jackson,
Bryan Jenkins and Steffan Tubbs, The Associated Press and Reuters
contributed to this report.