Skip to main content

Wildfires near Santa Fe worry residents

By Molly Green, CNN
Click to play
Wildfire inches closes to Los Alamos lab
  • "It's a little nerve-wracking," a Santa Fe resident says
  • Authorities order a mandatory evacuation for the town of Los Alamos
  • More than 10,000 people are affected by the evacuation order
  • Officials: Central structures at the Los Alamos nuclear facility well protected

(CNN) -- Susan River is surrounded by fire.

At night, flames are visible on the ridges of the Jemez Mountains, which separate River's and other Santa Fe, New Mexico, homes from the situation to the west in Los Alamos. During the day, River can see only smoke in the distance.

"I look out my front door and see the Pacheco fire and I look out my back door and see the Los Alamos fire," said River.

River doesn't think she's the only one experiencing such a view.

"I think a lot of people in Santa Fe are in that situation right now," she said. "I think it can be quite depressing if you don't stay on top of that emotionally."

Wildfire threatens Los Alamos lab

The Los Alamos fire, which is officially called the Las Conchas fire, is roughly 20 miles northwest of River's back door and sparked the evacuation of nearly 10,000 people from the town. It has consumed more than 60,000 acres and none of its perimeters are contained, according to InciWeb, an online database that keeps track of natural disasters such as fires and floods.

River, an academic affairs employee at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, hosted one of Los Alamos' evacuees Monday night.

"It's very difficult for him," she said. "It's a very uncertain time. This fire is acting so differently (from ones before) -- it does make me a little nervous."

The Las Conchas Fire began on private land Sunday and expanded into the Santa Fe National Forest and Jemez Ranger District, according to InciWeb.

The Pacheco Fire continues to burn in the Pecos Wilderness, two miles north of the Santa Fe Ski Basin. It has scorched 10,000 acres since it began June 18. The blaze was 15% contained Tuesday, but it's very likely to continue growing, according to InciWeb.

The Donaldson and Game fires south of Hondo and U.S. Highway 70 have merged into one fire that has consumed an estimated 15,000 acres and is also 0% contained, according to the New Mexico Fire Information website. No structures have been burned, however, and no one has been evacuated due to the fire, which was started by lightning, according to the website.

Not only have dry conditions and gusty winds threatened the growth of the fires, but residents in Santa Fe and Los Alamos, including River, fear the effect the Las Conchas fire will have on the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear science center.

The lab is about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, but still River worries.

"They say there's no real danger," she said. "But you don't know... it's a little nerve-wracking."

Charles McMillan, the laboratory's director, said Tuesday that all was under control at the facility, regardless of a small fire that broke out Monday.

"The only fire we've had at the lab at all is a very small fire yesterday afternoon," McMillan said at a news conference Tuesday with other government officials. "Our firefighters saw it quickly and put it out. It burned something less than an acre. That's where we stand."

The National Nuclear Security Administration was scheduled to survey the lab Tuesday to measure radiation levels, according to a statement on the Los Alamos National Laboratory website.

The fire has raised concerns about whether hazardous materials kept there are being adequately guarded. McMillan and other officials say the materials are secure, and that any information important to the safety of the public would be announced.

Doug Tucker, the Los Alamos fire chief, said the Las Conchas fire touches the south border of the lab's 40-square-mile facility, and comes close to the west border. He made no promises that it would stay away.

But McMillan said lab personnel had prepared for such an event.

"They have anticipated the problem of fire, and they've taken precautions," Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico told CNN Monday. "The structures that are central to the operation of the laboratory are well protected."

At Tuesday's news conference, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez promised citizens that she, too, would provide any information that affected public safety regarding the lab and also warned citizens to avoid using fireworks for July Fourth and the rest of the season.

The lab has been closed at least until Wednesday due to the fires and employees are instructed to stay away unless absolutely necessary, said InciWeb.

Martinez said she's concerned about the situation.

"That is the reason for the evacuation and that is the reason the team has been brought in to make sure that lab is completely safe," Martinez said in a phone interview with CNN Tuesday morning.

Voluntary evacuations began Sunday evening in Los Alamos and White Rock, a town southeast of Los Alamos, but quickly became mandatory for Los Alamos residents by Tuesday, according to InciWeb.

River attributes the success of such evacuations, in part, to past experiences.

"I think everybody learned a lot from the last fire," she said. "I have to say that from what I can see, the evacuation from Los Alamos was very efficient and it seemed to go off without a hitch."

River plans to leave town if necessary and stay with friends who are out of the way of the fires, she says.

CNN's Craig Bell contributed to this report