Wildfire, Emergency Response, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory

Natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daichii nuclear-power plant, flooding at the Fort Calhoun and Cooper Nuclear Stations in Nebraska, and the Las Conchas wildfire outside of the Los Alamos National Laboratory remind us of the importance of emergency planning.

The wildfire outside of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) poses a threat, but state and local emergency response officials with years of wildfire experience and proven fire mitigation methods are on top of the situation. According to the InciWeb incident information system, firefighters began setting “back burns” on the west side of New Mexico State Route 501 as the fire was approaching the western boundary of LANL on Wednesday morning, June 29th. Those operations were declared complete by evening. The back burns were intended to remove available fuel from the Las Conchas Fire, which has consumed more than 60,000 acres on two sides of the 37-square-mile LANL site but scorched only one acre of Lab property itself.

Located in northern New Mexico about 35 miles (40 minutes drive) northwest of Santa Fe, the Laboratory has more than 1,800 buildings spread across 36 square miles; the facilities support research in some 50 different disciplines. According to Manny L’Esperance, Fire Safety Officer at LANL, “Los Alamos [is] landlocked atop mesas and surrounded by thousands of acres of forest—much of it dry and brittle—[it] is prime fire hazard territory.“

Wildfires are nothing new to LANL. Fire threats over the past 60 years include the 43,000-acre Cerro Grande fire that entered the town site and destroyed more than 400 homes in May 2000. Other significant fires occurred in 1996, 1977, and 1954.  As a result of these threats, the Los Alamos County Long-Term Recovery, Redevelopment, and Hazard Mitigation Plan was developed in 2001. This document identified a fuels modification program for unburned county lands as the highest priority item. Following the plan’s recommendations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided a grant to Los Alamos County for the es­tablishment of a fuel mitigation project. The FEMA grant enabled the County to immediately begin fuel reduction, treating a larger land area at a faster pace than it could have other­wise. This sort of awareness is critical in emergency preparedness planning. The County of Los Alamos and the LANL recognized that wildfire is always a threat. Through modeling and research, and by trial and error, the Los Alamos area is better prepared for their most likely hazard – wildfires.

Another issue with wildfires in and around the LANL is the effect on the nuclear storage facilities located there. The possibility of radionuclides entering the atmosphere (similar to what happened at the Fukushima Daichii facility) has been assessed by LANL officials. Flyovers with “sniffer aircraft” similar to those used over the remains of the twin towers after 9/11 have been conducted at the LANL. The results turned up no abnormalities.  The LANL also uses a system called AirNet, which is a network of more than 50 environmental air stations placed throughout the county that sample the ambient air for radionuclides such as plutonium, tritium, and uranium that may be emitted from laboratory operations.[1]

The InciWeb incident information report on the Las Conchas wildfire reported that as of Thursday, 11:00 AM EST, no wild fires were currently burning on Lab property. All of the Laboratory’s nuclear and hazardous materials, including its waste and environmental remediation sites, are safe, accounted for, and protected.[2]

About Los Alamos National Laboratory Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, and URS for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.

For more information on the Las Conchas wildfire and the Los Alamos National Laboratory please refer to the following sites:


LANL Ops: http://www.lanl.gov/tools/maps/maps2009/ta00_townsite.pdf

Fire Map: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/ftp/InciWeb/NMSNF/2011-06-27-00:17-las-conchas/related_files/ftp-20110630-141500.pdf

Los Alamos Twitter information/Interagency Wildfire Information: http://twitter.com/#!/NMFireInfo

New Mexico Fire Information Blog and current fire updates: http://nmfireinfo.wordpress.com/


LANL Information Sources:

LANL New Center: http://www.lanl.gov/news/releases/index.html

LANL Fire Updates: http://www.lanl.gov/news/releases/fire_updates.html

LA County Community Wildfire Protection Plan: http://www.losalamosnm.us/parks/trails/Documents/Los%20Alamos%20County%20Community%20Wildfire%20Protection%20Plan%20OPT.pdf


Author: Eston D. Spain, associate emergency planner