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Los Alamos fires continue to rage, officials remain hopeful

By Molly Green, CNN
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New Mexico firefighters battle blaze
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "We're in the best shape since this thing started," fire chief says
  • NEW: Officials estimate an additional 15,000 acres burn Wednesday
  • NEW: National preserve lands begin closing in response to the fires

(CNN) -- Against the backdrop of a fire-tinted evening sky, Los Alamos, New Mexico, Fire Chief Doug Tucker told reporters that Wednesday was make-it-or-break-it and he was pleased with the progress firefighters made against a stubborn, destructive raging blaze.

"It makes me feel sad to see the plume behind me," he said, motioning to the grey mass of smoke that dominated the horizon. "But ... we're in the best shape since this thing started."

The Los Alamos fire, which is officially called the Las Conchas fire, sparked the evacuation of nearly 10,000 people from the town of Los Alamos. Officials estimated the fire consumed an additional 15,000-20,000 acres Wednesday -- bringing the total to about 90,000 acres -- but they remained optimistic.

Jerome MacDonald, operations section chief for the multi-state southwest area Incident management team, said fire officials plan to flank the fire on the east side Thursday in an attempt to curb high winds predicted from the southwest.

Concerns were raised that the wildfire could put the Los Alamos National Laboratory at risk, as well as waste or other toxic materials stored at the lab.

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But Tucker said that the waste is stored in drums that are kept on a blacktop with no vegetation around and are safe from fire. If the fire should get too close to the drums, firefighters were ready to use foam to ensure that nothing would be released into the environment, he said.

The Las Conchas Fire began on private land Sunday and expanded into the Santa Fe National Forest and Jemez Ranger District, according to InciWeb, an online database that keeps track of natural disasters such as fires and floods.

The fire was 3% contained Wednesday.

In a news statement released Wednesday, the Santa Fe National Forest and Valles Caldera National Preserve said that parts of both preserves would close to the public until the fire is more controlled.

Parts of the national forest have been placed under "stage III" fire restrictions, meaning all areas are off-limits for use unless otherwise posted.

The Las Conchas Fire touches the south border of the lab's 40-square-mile facility, and comes close to the west border, according to Tucker.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez warned citizens to avoid using fireworks on the July Fourth holiday and the rest of the season.

The Las Conchas Fire is one of several burning in the region.

The Donaldson and Game Fires south of the town of Hondo and U.S. Highway 70 have merged into one fire that has consumed an estimated 15,000 acres and is 0% contained, according to the New Mexico Fire Information website.

Evacuations were ordered for Alamo Canyon Wednesday as the Donaldson fire continues to threaten parts of Lincoln County.

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 20% contained early Wednesday, but it's likely to continue growing, according to InciWeb.

CNN's Ed Payne and Craig Bell contributed to this report

 
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