LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Thousands of residents calmly fled Monday from the mesa-top town that's home to the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, ahead of an approaching wildfire that sent up towering plumes of smoke, rained down ash and sparked a spot fire on lab property where scientists 50 years ago conducted underground tests of radioactive explosives.
Los Alamos National Laboratory officials said that the spot fire was soon contained and no contamination was released. They also assured that radioactive materials stored in various spots elsewhere on the sprawling lab were safe from flames.
The wildfire, which began Sunday, had destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos by early Monday and forced the closure of the lab while stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings.
"The hair on the back of your neck goes up," Los Alamos County fire Chief Doug Tucker said of seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. "I saw that plume and I thought, 'Oh, my God, here we go again.' "
Tucker said the current blaze — which grew Monday to roughly 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles — was the most active fire he had seen. By midafternoon, it had jumped a highway and burned an acre of land on the outskirts of the lab's 36-square mile complex.
The fire scorched about an acre in the area what is known as the Tech Area, 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials. Lab officials said the fire was safely extinguished.
Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists from the lab were monitoring air quality Monday, but that the main concern was smoke.
The antinuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, however, said the fire appeared to be about 31/2 miles from a dump site where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored.
More wildfires: The biggest blaze in Arizona history was 82 percent contained after burning through 538,000 acres in the White Mountains in northeast Arizona. In Colorado, about 100 firefighters are battling a wildfire that broke out in a canyon northwest of Boulder.
Nebraska's reactors safe from flooding
The nation's top nuclear power regulator said Monday that both of Nebraska's nuclear power plants have remained safe as they battle floodwaters from the bloated Missouri River.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko visited Fort Calhoun and Cooper plants in eastern Nebraska to see how the utilities that run them are coping with the flooding. The plants sit on the river.
An 8-foot-tall, water-filled temporary berm protecting the Fort Calhoun collapsed early Sunday. Vendor workers were at the plant Monday to determine whether the 2,000 foot berm can be repaired.