Since inhaling even one microscopic fleck of plutonium is likely to be fatal, the consequences could be cataclysmic.
LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I’ll rubberneck at a house fire if I happen to be passing by. Wildfires, though, can pull me in from the next county. I spent five years during my late teens and early twenties cutting firebreaks with a hotshot and engine crew for the U.S. Forest Service, and the smell of burning pine can make me wish I was back on the line.
When northern New Mexico’s Las Conchas fire erupted on Sunday, June 26, the gigantic plume of smoke billowing off the Jemez Mountains looked terrifying and ugly, like motor oil smeared across the sky. After sunset I drove to a lookout spot near my home in Santa Fe, where Outside is based, and watched a wall of flames six miles wide roaring down the southern and eastern flanks of the Jemez range, 20 miles west of where I stood. I had to go see it for myself.
The Forest Service is generally leery about letting journalists tag along with firefighters. Unlike the military, which regularly embeds reporters with front-line troops, it doesn’t see any upside to having untrained onlookers hanging around in a war zone. But Michael Thompson, an assistant chief for the Los Alamos County Fire Department, agreed by telephone to let me join him for a patrol of the firelines on Monday afternoon. “Get to Los Alamos before they block the city off,” he told me. “The town’s evacuating.”
In less than 20 hours, the Las Conchas fire—which started roughly 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos—had consumed nearly 50,000 acres and closed much of the gap between its point of origin and the town, an incredibly rapid march. Midday Monday, the fire was already threatening to enter this small but well-known community of 12,000 people, most of whom are among the 15,000 nuclear scientists and support staff who work at the adjoining Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). By 3 p.m., I was speeding west with Outside senior editor Grayson Schaffer. A steady stream of cars were coming from the other direction, fleeing the tightly controlled hilltop citadel. Over our heads, a mushrooming column of smoke reached into the stratosphere.
We met Thompson in a high school parking lot off Trinity Drive, named for the site where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. (Other Los Alamos streets bear familiar names: Oppenheimer Drive, Bikini Atoll Road.) Everyone seemed surprisingly calm.
“It’s going about as well as an evacuation can,” said Thompson, who was operating on an hour of sleep. We climbed into his Chevy Tahoe and headed south toward the fire. Thompson is a big, middle-aged man with a Tom Selleck mustache and the unflappable manner you’d expect from someone who deals with disaster for a living. Though Las Conchas was the most impressive blaze he’d seen in his 20-year career, he told us, it wasn’t especially shocking to him.
Los Alamos had been scorched before. Back in May of 2000, firefighters lost control of a prescribed burn on federal land just south of town. The resulting Cerro Grande fire consumed 47,000 acres and destroyed some 300 homes and businesses. Thousands of firefighters from across the country fought it for more than a month, at a cost of $1 billion.
“I was having lunch in town when I saw the column from Las Conchas,” Thompson said, sounding resigned. “It was déjà vu all over again.”