Planet Waves | Los Alamos Fire by Amy Fulton-Stout


Lightning strikes the New Mexico desert near Santa Fe. But it was federal workers who set the fire that threatened to destroy the massive nuclear and chemical laboratory at Los Alamos. Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Labs.

Live from Los Alamos
or how 50 years of fire suppression
could have detonated a nuclear lab)


By Amy Fulton-Stout
Planet Waves Digital Media

Outline of a Fire

Here in Los Alamos, on this quiet Saturday afternoon, it is easy to forget the scene that was unfolding a mere 10 days ago. On my side of town remain blossoming fruit trees, green lawns, flowerbeds, and quiet suburban neighborhoods. Take a walk to the other side of town though, or just turn your head to the mountains to the north, and it's a totally different scene. The mountainsides that were green forests of ponderosa pines stand decimated, and the houses that nestled in those forests aren't standing at all. The tops of the mountains are lined with charred trees that look eerily like used matchsticks. The fire burned up the sides of those mountains until it ran out of fuel.

On the afternoon of May 4, 2000, with Uranus squaring the moon, Saturn, and Jupiter from the descendant, and Leo squaring them from the ascendant, Park Service employees at Bandelier National Monument set a fire. Classified as a "controlled" burn, the blaze was set under Park Service policy to purge National Forests of overgrowth. Six firefighters were on the job.

Early on May 5, officials at Bandelier were calling for more help. According to a report released by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on May 18, at around 3 a.m. on May 5 officials contacted dispatch for a helicopter and 20-person crew to help fight the blaze. They were told to call back later in the morning. Around 7:30 a.m., officials got through to dispatch after repeatedly calling for about an hour and then were told they needed to "check with others" before filing the request. Agreement was finally reached and the 20-man fire crew arrived around 11 a.m., eight hours after the burn supervisor's initial request.

The evening of May 7 parts of the town of Los Alamos were evacuated. The afternoon of May 9 the entire town was evacuated. At 1 a.m. on the morning of May 10, the nearby town of White Rock was evacuated. By the morning of May 11, 265 homes in Los Alamos had burned and 405 families had been displaced. Before the fire was contained, 47,650 acres within an 89-mile perimeter had been consumed.

Nuclear materials stored in the laboratory. CNN file photos.


It Can't Happen Here, Can It? An "Unforecast Wind Event"

We have a special obligation in our management of forests to deal with these safety issues, to avoid another Los Alamos.
-- Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, May 18, 2000.

On Monday, May 7 Roy Weaver, the Bandelier official in charge of starting the fire, announced that he would do it again. He defined the problem not as one of the fire being set, rather that it was subjected to an "unforecast wind event."

In another manifestation of Pentagon-speak, after parts of the town of Los Alamos went up in flames, officials shifted from calling the fire a "controlled" burn to called it a "prescribed" burn.

How did this happen? Fire suppression in this country has a checkered past. In 1942, the USDA Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program. This encouraged citizens nationwide to make a personal effort to prevent forest fires. It was a mobilized civilian effort in support of the war effort to protect valuable trees. Timber was a primary commodity for battleships, gunstocks, and packing crates for military transport.

Ten years later, a bear cub was found in a treetop in a blackened forest in, of all places, New Mexico. Firefighters saved him and sent him to the National Zoo. He became the living "Smokey Bear".

We're all familiar with the symbol and the idea behind Smokey. The carelessness of humans in a forest setting can have grave consequences. The message has been heard. In 1999 in the Rocky Mountains, 1,019 fires were started by humans, compared with 1,357 started by lightning.

Yet official fire suppression and heightened awareness about fire by users of parks and forests has resulted in overgrowth. Several years of drought throughout the Rocky Mountain States have resulted in ideal fire conditions. And lots of people live and work near the woods. Controlled burns are a way of minimizing the possibility of wildfires (unless they ironically escape, as they did in Los Alamos.) Predictions are that, after the 30-day moratorium called for by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt expires, controlled burns will be pursued more aggressively than before.


Local media coverage: Do Not Panic

"I wish I had better foresight when this fire started", said Norman Hamer, an employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as he worked a shovel through the tangled remains of his house. "I was of the opinion when this started, that it was a drill. If I had any kind of clue of what would happen, I would have gotten out our paintings at least. Now, we'll never get them back."

Los Alamos Monitor, May 19, 2000.

Houses in Los Alamos began burning on May 9 at 4 p.m. The town was evacuated at 1:15 p.m. I got out immediately, and listened as the local radio station broadcast this announcement over and over.

"The townsite of Los Alamos is now being evacuated. All residents are ordered to leave their homes immediately. Do not panic. I repeat, do not panic. Leave your homes immediately."

Some of my neighbors who didn't get out as quickly saw, as they drove out of town, flames very near the road. Repeatedly throughout the night firefighters were forced to back away from burning structures and jump onto a waiting fire truck that then sped from the scene. Notwithstanding the destruction, every house that remains in Los Alamos is a monument to the bravery and effectiveness of the firefighters.

On May 9 and 10, despite continuous news coverage on all local channels, it was very difficult to tell where the fire actually was. No maps of the town or the location of the fire were provided. I wrote to a local station about this issue and received this response.


It's taken a while to respond to you because of the fires. You brought up several points. On showing maps, we unfortunately were not given confirmed locations of houses destroyed until Friday. We did not dare try to give locations destroyed before then. What if the information wasn't correct? Someone would have thought their house was burned when it may not have been.

The only news about Los Alamos National Laboratory was that the fire was burning on "Lab property". Lab property literally surrounds the town -- 43 square miles of it --extending along mesas and down into canyons. At 1 a.m. the nearby town of White Rock was also evacuated.

I was at a hotel in Santa Fe on Thursday, and the people there who had been evacuated from White Rock answered the question of why with three words -- "We don't know." The special telephone hotline update given at 4:45 on Thursday May 10 gave the reason for the evacuation of White Rock. Captain Wayne Brownlee of the Los Alamos police department said: "Fire posed a danger to Technical Area 54. White Rock was evacuated."

White Rock is a small community of about 7,000 people, the vast majority of whom work at the Lab. The main nuclear facility of the Lab, TA-55, is located on the road leading to White Rock. So is TA-54, the area in which secured nuclear waste is stored before being sent, by truck, to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The danger to TA-54 was not reported on the local news. Not on Thursday, not on Friday and not over the weekend. Again, from the local news station I received this response:

(Regarding) the evacuation of White Rock, I was among the crew there live at 1:30 a.m. Thursday giving every detail we could about the evacuation. We were given several reasons for evacuating White Rock. We did here (sic) about TA-54, but most officials told us the evacuation was due to smoke becoming dangerous. Again, would we be causing panic if we jumped immediately on that?


Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technology

What exactly is at TA-54 anyway? Old gloveboxes, anti-C clothing, equipment that was used at the original plutonium facility here at Los Alamos. Once it is "characterized", the word for people determining how radioactive it is, it will be disposed of accordingly. Low-level waste will be buried or disposed of in the canyons around the lab. Higher level waste will be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

While awaiting characterization, the waste at TA-54 is stored in drums and in what are known as FRPs (Fiber-Reinforced Plastic) containers. I spoke with the Lab employee who oversees the waste housed at TA-54.

"You know what, Amy?" he told me. "I got a call on Tuesday about the fire because they were worried about TA-54. I told them they should have worried about TA-54 before they set the thing. If one of those FRPs went up, it could have been bad. But really, the way things worked out, the only reason I would have evacuated White Rock was because of the smoke. There's no way they can contain smoke."

He continued. "There's nothing to burn around there. Where the waste is stored there's no fuel for the fire. I think the Laboratory should be commended for taking such extreme precautions. Really it's a good thing the Lab did to evacuate White Rock."

No high explosives and no radioactive waste containers were burned in the Los Alamos fire. We will find out more as time goes by. Results of the "official" tour of damaged lab property are, unsurprisingly, "officially fine."

One major concern has been waste that has previously been dumped or disposed of in the canyons surrounding Los Alamos lab. The EPA, LANL, and several other agencies are monitoring fallout now. Levels are all within the normal range as of this writing.

Nevertheless, all of us who live here live with the possibility that somehow waste may escape. We live in the shadows of very dangerous technology. Charles Perrow, in his definitive work on safety issues, Normal Accidents, puts it this way.

"The odd term normal accident is meant to signal that, given the system characteristics, . . . failures are inevitable. This is . . . an integral characteristic of the system, not a statement of frequency. It is normal for us to die, but we only do it once. (Normal) accidents are uncommon, even rare; yet this is not all that reassuring, if they can produce catastrophes." p. 5

Fire breaks, FRPs, protective domes, and all kinds of physical security seem to have worked in this instance. Also, a major force that fueled the wildfire, the wind, turned it away from some of the most dangerous spots on Laboratory land. There was no nuclear "normal accident" during this fire. Yet this is not all that reassuring.


Stockpile Stewardship and the Limits of Safety

Paternalism: n. A policy or practice of treating or governing people in a fatherly manner, especially by providing for their needs without giving them rights or responsibilities.
-- American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition

The mission of Los Alamos National Laboratory is defined as "stockpile stewardship". The Laboratory works to safeguard nuclear materials here and abroad. Ironically, while the fire wasn't a nuclear or hazardous accident, it was predictable, preventable, and catastrophic. Just ask the 405 families who have lost their homes.

A major flaw of the official story as it has unfolded ­- and, I suspect, will continue to unfold ­- has been the miserly spoonfeeding of information. What you need in a crisis, what you need when making a decision, are facts. The people burned out by the fire are standing in the ashes of their homes. All of us in Los Alamos are standing in the ashes of a government-sponsored fiasco.

The Park Service officials who set the fire, the local news media who tightened up reporting to avoid panic, Laboratory officials who have manipulated the situation to downplay the role of their good dumb luck, have all done a grave disservice to this community and perhaps to the nation as well. If all officials are going to tell people is that they do what they do for the people's "own good", it is the worst kind of paternalism. It isn't good government. And it isn't truth.++

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