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Struggle To Contain N.M. Blaze

May 12, 2000

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) _ Slackening wind and increased humidity today gave firefighters a boost as they struggled to hold the line against a fire that destroyed 260 homes and forced 25,000 people from the town where the atomic bomb was built.

``With the light winds, we’re hoping to get air power in here today to put it out,″ Gov. Gary Johnson said this morning on NBC’s ``Today″ show. ``There haven’t been any new fires so this is really positive.″

State Insurance Superintendent Don Letherer told The Albuquerque Tribune he estimated property losses could reach $1 billion. He said the fire would be declared a catastrophe, which means insurance companies will have to settle claims in 90 days or face penalties.

Roughly 200 miles to the south, a fire in the Sacramento Mountains, sparked by a downed power line, blew up from the 100 acres it covered when it was reported Thursday to 20,000 acres today.

``This fire has grown at an astronomical rate,″ said Rick Hartigan, a fire information officer.

The fire forced the evacuation of the southern New Mexico towns of Sacramento and Weed and a number of the rural areas, he said. He did not know how many people had fled or whether any homes had been burned.

About 200 firefighters are tackling the blaze, but winds of 15-25 mph have grounded aircraft designed to drop fire retardant and water, he said.

In Los Alamos, some evacuees returned today after fleeing Thursday ahead of flames fanned by 50-mph winds. Margrethe and Bill Feldman were delighted to find their home was still standing.

``It was relief. It was joy,″ said Mrs. Feldman. ``I was prepared to find just nothing and all of a sudden there it is.″

Officials said 191 structures were destroyed. Accounting for townhomes and duplexes under one roof, that meant 260 separate dwellings were burned. Evacuees whose homes survived may nevertheless be kept away for a week.

``This fire is not over with and nobody here is pretending that it is,″ Johnson said.

Firefighters worked feverishly to stanch the week-old blaze that was deliberately set to burn brush at Bandelier National Monument, but escaped to slice through about 28,000 acres like a white-hot sickle by this morning. The official who ordered the controlled burn was placed on leave Thursday.

The fire was growing at a slower pace this morning as winds calmed. Winds of up to 25 mph were expected today. Temperatures were expected to be in the low to mid-70s and the minimum relative humidity was expected to be around 20 percent, said fire spokeswoman Chris Judson.

``That’s a big help. That’s a good start, said Judson.

The improved conditions represented a significant turnaround from Thursday. At one point, the blaze surged so ferociously that firefighters dropped their equipment and ran for safety.

``It came roaring down like a freight train off the mountain,″ said Ed Pullian, a battalion chief with the Los Alamos Fire Department. ``We didn’t have a chance. We kept retreating, retreating, retreating and kept getting overrun.″

Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which employs 7,000 people at buildings throughout the city.

Brick fireplaces and chimneys were the only things remaining of some homes, while others were left virtually unscathed. A basketball hoop remained intact on one driveway, its net singed but still hanging.

At the weapons lab, flames burned trailers and portable buildings, rolled past concrete bunkers containing explosives, and came within 300 yards of a plutonium storage facility. Lab officials insisted dangerous materials were protected in fire-resistant facilities strong enough to withstand the crash of a 747.

``These materials are in the best place, given the fire,″ Johnson said after the flames passed by. ``There hasn’t been the release of anything dangerous, again, there’s not going to be.″

There was still some potential danger posed by a hazardous waste area in nearby White Rock, where asbestos, low-level radioactive waste and PCBs are stored in steel drums and fiberglass compound containers.

The fire was about five miles away from the area Thursday night.

Paul Schumann, an official with the lab, said possible health effects if the area catches fire range from short-term problems such as liver poisoning to long-term ailments including cancer, the result of breathing a plutonium particles.

The fire was set May 4 by the National Park Service to clear brush near Bandelier, but raged out of control in the dry, windy conditions. Roy Weaver, Bandelier’s superintendent, could not be reached for comment on whether he had seen a special National Weather Service forecast faxed to the park beforehand that said fire-growth conditions were at their highest.

About 50 miles east of Los Alamos, over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a blaze possibly sparked by an airplane crash burned 600-700 acres, two homes, a farm and some outbuildings north of Las Vegas, said Terri Wildermuth, state Forestry Division spokeswoman.

An 8,650-acre fire in the Capitan Mountains, some 40 miles north of the Sacramento Mountains fire, was 41 percent contained today, said Marylee Peterson, a U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer.