The summer sun and heat are wonderful things; especially after a long, cold winter. But with heat comes the risk of fire and for the area of Las Conchas, New Mexico that risk has become a very frightening reality.
The Las Conchas fire began on June 26, 2011 at approximately 1:00 p.m. in the Santa Fe National Forest and has since been spreading and ravaging the surrounding areas. The fire has so far burned through 61,000 acres over the past three days and shows no signs of stopping. According to Rod Torrez, the Chief of Interpretation and spokesperson with the Las Conchas Public Information Office, “With wild fires of this size we really can’t estimate when it will be contained; right now we are at 0% containment.”
Currently evacuations are taking place in the area. The first section to be evacuated was a small community known as Cochiti Mesa. Also, a mandatory order of evacuation was put in place by the County Administrator for the city of Los Alamos which has a population of approximately 15,000 people. Additionally, a voluntary evacuation is taking place in White Rock a nearby town.
The damage in the region is hard to ascertain. Torrez declared, “It’s a big fire and it is hot so it’s hard to get people in there.” However, to his knowledge some residential homes have been lost in the Cochiti Mesa community and exact information regarding destruction in Los Alamos is presently unknown. Thankfully there have been no fatalities and no known injuries to residents at this point in time.
Another great concern throughout this event has been the risk of the fire spreading to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of three nuclear-weapons laboratories in the nation. Although the laboratory has been built to withstand fire, concern for its effect on the radioactive material present in the laboratory still exists. A highway bordering the laboratory, Highway 4, is currently being protected to prevent the spread of the fire to the facility. Local fire personnel are burning what is called a “back fire.”
The purpose of the “back fire” is to widen the area around the highway in an effort to deter the wild fire away form the laboratory. Torrez disclosed these efforts in an interview late Tuesday afternoon and also revealed that a small spot fire did start on laboratory land, but was dealt with and resolved.
An interview with Laboratory spokesperson Kevin Roark revealed that a Radiological Assistance Program Team (RAPT) has been assembled to assess and evaluate the developing situation. Although precautions are being taken Roark affirmed, “There is no major risk to the laboratory at this time.”
This is not the first time this region has faced this type of dilemma. In 2000, this area had a similar fire in which 43,000 acres were destroyed and more than $1 billion in property damage was incurred. Roughly 400 residential homes were affected and 100 structures on the Los Alamos National Laboratory property were destroyed in that fire.
According to Torrez “This current disaster has already topped the fire in 2000 by 50%!”
The past devastation and the calamity currently unfolding in this vicinity are unfortunate. Thousands of lives have been affected by this occurrence and with no end in sight many more will likely be also. At this time personnel in the area are working feverishly to stop this seemingly uncontrollable fire before even more devastation is endured. Hopefully this is achieved sooner rather than later.