Smoke above the mesas, Pajarito Plateau, looking northwest from southern edge of municpal airport in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

New Mexico Wildfires: Day 3

ICTMN Staff
6/30/11

As the wildfire continues to burn in New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest, the nation nervously watches the threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), birthplace of the United States' nuclear weapons program. Few have more reason for concern than the American Indian population in the area. As the smoke drifts onto pueblos such as Nambe and Tesuque, the questions loom. What if my home burns? What if the LANL burns? What is happening to my land?

Right now, with the fires still burning, the first question seems a remote possibility. The Pueblo closest to the fire, according to the latest map (PDF file), is Cochiti Pueblo, less than three miles to the southeast of the blaze perimeter. However, Cochiti lies on the other side of the Rio Grande river. Jemez Pueblo is over four miles to the southwest of the fire, but does not have the barrier of the Rio Grande and could be more vulnerable if the winds were to shift.

Seeking the answer to the second of those questions, about the threat of radioactivity from LANL, Time.com has interviewed Peter Stockton, a senior investigator for the independent watchdog Project on Government Oversight. He is not optimistic about LANL's readiness for a large fire. He says that the sprinkler systems might not even work, and laments that the 20,000-30,000 tons of plutonium-contaminated waste has not been moved to a safer location. Although, he says, the waste in Technical Area 54 is "low-level waste," he cautions that it is still "the most toxic substance known to man." "If that becomes airborne, and just a speck of plutonium gets into your lungs, you're going to end up with cancer down the road," he warns. He proclaims LANL "potentially" vulnerable to fire, and says the best we can really do is "hope to hell that the wind blows in the right direction."

Even if the waste at LANL is secured, some experts fear that radioactive material in the environment, left over from World War II-era tests, could be released by intense heat.  "The trees have grown up during that time frame and the soil could be contaminated," Rita Bates, of the New Mexico Environment Department, told ABC News. "If it gets heated and that stuff goes airborne, then we are concerned about that."

The damage wrought by the fire, according to InciWeb: Nearly 70,000 acres burned, and 12 residences destroyed. An evacuation order was issued for the city of Los Alamos; nearby White Rock is not considered at risk, but a voluntary evacuation has been advised. On Wednesday night, the fire was just 3% contained.

InciWeb lists the fire's cause as "unknown, under investigation" but on Tuesday Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said the likely cause was a power line.

On Wednesday, the wind helped—or ar least didn't hinder—firefighting efforts, according to this local news report:

For the communities near the Las Conchas blaze, smoke and unhealthy air quality has become an issue. The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for the communities of White Rock, Los Alamos and Hispaniola. Other areas, including Nambe Pueblo, face threats to air quality from both the Las Conchas fire and the Pacheco fire.

In fact, while no pueblos are considered threatened by Las Conchas, both Nambe and Tesuque Pueblos are considered threatened by Pacheco, which has been burning since June 18 and is now 20% contained, according to InciWeb. Of the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, six lie in the territory between the Las Conchas and Pacheco fires: Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, Nambe Pueblo and Tesuque Pueblo. (Source: Map of Pueblos at IndianPueblos.org.)

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