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Los Alamos may lift evacuation order

A firefighter from Las Vegas, N.M., held his ground on the flank of the massive wildfire near the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos. Officials began planning for the return of thousands of residents and employees who fled. A firefighter from Las Vegas, N.M., held his ground on the flank of the massive wildfire near the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos. Officials began planning for the return of thousands of residents and employees who fled. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
By P. Solomon Banda
Associated Press / July 3, 2011

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LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - With firefighters holding their ground against the largest wildfire ever in New Mexico, officials at the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory and in the surrounding city planned for the return of thousands of evacuated employees and residents.

The blaze was several miles upslope from Los Alamos National Laboratory yesterday, boosting confidence that it no longer posed an immediate threat to the facility.

Thousands of experiments, including those on two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era nuclear bombs, were put on hold because of the fire. Hundreds of employees began returning to the lab yesterday to begin getting things ready for scientists, technicians, and other employees.

Employees were checking filters in air systems to ensure they were not affected by smoke and utilities were operational, and to restart computer systems.

“Once we start operation phases for the laboratory, it will take about two days to bring everyone back and have the laboratory fully operations,’’ lab director Charles McMillan said. “I’d like to continue to ask the employees of the laboratory to continue to be patient.’’

Authorities did not give a timetable for when they would lift the evacuation order that began Monday for the town of Los Alamos, home to 12,000 people.

But some county workers were already back to prepare for the eventual rush of utility service calls, as well as possible flooding from surrounding mountainsides denuded by the wildfire. Los Alamos County fire Chief Doug Tucker sent some of his firefighters home to rest in anticipation of having the Fire Department capable of responding to regular calls from residents.

Fire officials were sure the fire would not spread into the lab along its north and west boundaries. While they are confident the fire will not spread down Los Alamos Canyon and into the town and parts of the lab, firefighters were planning to burn out grasses and shrubs along the western edge of Los Alamos, though that area burned in 2000.

That the fire is burning in areas west and north of Los Alamos that the Native American tribe there holds sacred is an indication of how severe the fire danger is in the southwest. Burn areas typically provide spots to help stop fires.

The fire has blackened more than 177 square miles in the last six days. Erratic winds and dry conditions helped it surpass a 2003 fire that took five months to burn through 94,000 acres in the Gila National Forest.

A key challenge continues to be stopping the flames from doing more damage in Santa Clara Pueblo. The fire had moved north toward the reservation last week, hitting the watershed and cultural sites.

Santa Clara was not the only Indian community feeling the effects of the fire. To the south, residents in Cochiti Pueblo were also worried about damage to ground cover affecting the watershed.

Also, the Pajarito Plateau has hundreds of archeological sites at Bandelier National Monument that hold great significance to area tribes. About half of the park has burned, Bandelier superintendent Jason Lott said.

“The impact to our pueblos is unprecedented,’’ said US Representative Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat.

More than 1,200 firefighters were trying to slow the flames as National Guard troops, state police officers, and deputies patrolled neighborhoods and enforced evacuation orders.

Fire operations section chief Jerome Macdonald said parts of the fire in Santa Clara canyon burned hot while other areas saw less damage because of overnight temperatures and lighter winds.

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