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Wildfire at Los Alamos, New Mexico

Every now and then I have to tiptoe across the California state line to write about something important outside the state. I have another item “on a back burner,” but it can wait.

This one can’t.

The city of Livermore, California has a number of ties with Los Alamos, NM, as the result of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. I personally have no connection with “The Lab” other than having some friends who work there. I visited Los Alamos on business on one occasion, a long time ago while I was still working in Ohio, in connection with DNA and protein sequence data bases. Then, when that work moved from New Mexico to Bethesda, Maryland, I visited the folks at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine campus.

The Los Alamos fire is officially known as the Las Conchas Fire and has caused the evacuation of almost 10,000 people from the town of Los Alamos. Those of you who have visited the tiny, remote community may wonder whether there is anyone left! The population of the “census-designated place” in the year 2000 census was 11,909. The fire has devastated a total of about 90,000 acres, after it added 15,000-20,000 acres just today.

Today, the fire was just 3% contained. When fires in California are 3% contained, I am concerned about anyone close.

Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker addressed concerns that the wildfire could put the Los Alamos National Laboratory at risk as well as waste and other materials that are stored at that lab. Tucker stated that the waste is stored in drums kept on blacktop with no vegetation around and are safe from fire. ( :-) Please excuse my questioning, scientific mind that causes me to doubt most flat statements by “authorities” [that are designed to inspire confidence among the gullible]. I have heard far too many authorities who were “dead wrong” on just about any topic that you could name. Science progresses by doubting existing doctrines, otherwise we on earth would still be at the center of the solar system. :-) I am sure that the Japanese authorities were confident [overconfident!] that their reactors were safe from earthquakes and tsunamis [before they melted down], just as their American counterparts were and are.) Tucker said that if the fire should get too close to the drums that firefighters were prepared to use foam to ensure that nothing :-) would be released into the environment. Tucker said today that the Las Conchas Fire touches the south border of the lab’s 40-square-mile facility and comes close to the western border.

At this point, we should remember that Los Alamos was built where it is (i.e., remotely) for several reasons, security, secrecy, and safety being among them.

The Las Conchas Fire began on Sunday on private land and then expanded into the Santa Fe National Forest and the Jemez Ranger District, according to InciWeb, an online disaster data base (the disasters minimized, of course, by calling them “incidents.” :-) Dropping my spoon at the table is an “incident.”) A news statement today said that parts of the Santa Fe National Forest and the Valles Caldera National Preserve would be closed to the public until the fire is more controlled.

Other fires are also burning in the area. The Donaldson and Game Fires, south of the town of Hondo and U.S. Highway 70 have merged and consumed an estimated 15,000 acres. The merged fire is 0% contained. The Pacheco Fire, which began June 18, is burning in the Pecos Wilderness, two miles north of the Santa Fe Ski Basin and is only 20% contained. The Pacheco Fire has burned 10,000 acres so far and is likely to keep growing.

On my trip to Los Alamos, we got some really good advice from a scientist who suggested that we travel back to Santa Fe by going through the Bandelier National Monument and then out the Caldera. It was a trip from very high desert to a land that reminded me of Canada or California, with rushing mountain streams and tall conifers, before we left through the Caldera.

It was beautiful country indeed. I wish the brave firefighters the very best in containing and defeating these fires, hopefully with no loss of life or additional major “incident.”

(Note added June 30, 2011: Well, I see that I was not the only one concerned [I am not “worried,” most of the winds in the U.S. blow to the east from Los Alamos!] about the wildfire that has caused the evacuation of the town of Los Alamos and has CLOSED Los Alamos National Laboratory. The TIME NewsFeed by Olivia B. Waxman from “20 hours ago” is entitled “Q&A: Is New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory Really Safe?” A severe critic [no, I am NOT one] might answer, “Safe as it’s EVER been….” :-) When I wrote the blog entry last night, I did not know about the 20,000-30,000 “…drums of Cold War-era plutonium-contaminated waste that are sitting above ground in fabric tents in Technical Area 54 within Area G section.” Peter Stockton, a senior investigator for the independent watchdog Project on Government Oversight [POGO] thinks that the waste should be stored at WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] in southern New Mexico. Stockton notes:

“TA-54 contains 20,000-30,000 drums of waste, but just because it’s low-level waste doesn’t mean anything. If that becomes airborne, and just a speck of plutonium gets into your lungs, you’re going to end up with cancer down the road. It’s the most toxic substance known to man. It would be very nasty if those drums blew apart, and the wind carried them downwind.”

TA-54 is next to the town of White Rock.

The management of science-and-engineering-driven organizations, of which I’ve worked in several, is dominated [in one company where I worked, almost exclusively] by Myers-Briggs _NTJ types, which can be natural leaders, but they are also known for believing what comes out of their own heads [to the exclusion of objective reality?] and for defending those [often-mistaken] beliefs combatively! These are folks who would likely say, “Trust us. We are trained professionals. There is nothing to fear. We know what we are doing.” They do not tolerate criticism.

The interview in Time echoes a comment of mine above. Stockton’s final comment:

“Just hope to hell that the wind blows in the right direction.”

Firefighters, on the other hand, who tend to be Myers-Briggs ISTJs, take in objective data.

“We have seen fire behavior we have never seen before,” Fire Chief Doug Tucker told reporters Thursday.

Imagine that!)

(Note added June 30, 2011 at 19:23 PDT: Here is how to track [roughly] the Las Conchas wildfire on Google Earth!)

-Bill at

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