Looks like I spoke too soon with all my good news. That same day, right after I finished the post, I got two slamdunks. One, a massive forest fire is threatening my hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and two, my brother (the one that’s not a geek, or rather, not quite as much of a geek. We’re all geeks because we were raised in Los Alamos) was in a car accident in Montana. Thankfully, he’s fine. But the fire is not. It has burned over 60,000 acres so far and as of last night, was zero percent contained. The town’s best kept secret, its awesome ski hill, is starting to burn. It’s horrible and dangerous and devastating.

UPDATE: as of 5 hours ago, it’s now 3% contained. Current info is available here.

This morning, I did the usual. Early morning chat with my newly-appointed CTO, aka my brother Dave.

Dave: Hey, Mary! Did you see Los Alamos made Drudge?

Me: No!

I go check it out. There have been a lot of forest fires in the southwest US this summer. What’s different about this one? Why is it on Drudge? The answer is in the red, all-caps title: NUKE LAB FIRE DANGER

It continues in the first paragraph from the AP release:

A wildfire near the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb advanced on the Los Alamos laboratory and thousands of outdoor drums of plutonium-contaminated waste Tuesday as authorities stepped up efforts to protect the site and monitor the air for radiation.


Got your attention yet? Good grief. Might as well just post a picture of a big, red PANIC button. Here’s a similar one from Reuters:

The fire’s leading edge burned to within a few miles (kilometres) of a dump site where some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste is stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, fire officials said.

Yes, there are drums containing low-level nuclear waste in Los Alamos. Nuclear weapons research does happen there. Plutonium, a by-product, exists. It’s radioactive. But a “dump site”? The immediate conclusion drawn by Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, is (drum roll, please) that “these drums will get so hot that they’ll burst .. and put the toxic material into the plume” strikes me as just a tad alarmist. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

The DOE may be incompetent, that’s up for debate. But they’re not totally irresponsible. They’re not going to store this stuff in barrels that can explode. This area is known for its fire danger. After the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which destroyed hundreds of houses in the town, “additional measures were taken” to ensure that things were safe in the event that history repeated itself. Los Alamos is many things, I’m not going to go into that, but I really don’t get the impression that they have a laxist attitude about radioactive material. Quite the contrary.

Joni goes on to worry about how the fire is going to “stir up contaminated soil” where experiments were conducted years ago. “Burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface,” she said.

So she’s not just an expert in nuclear waste containment vessels, but animal behavior as well! Way I look at it, if the fire does get to the lab, it’ll flush out all those burrowing varmints and solve that problem but good.

Despite the mandatory evacuation order, a few hardy souls stayed behind. When asked if he was worried about the flames reaching sensitive materials, chemical engineer Mark Smith said “the risk of exposure is so small. I wouldn’t sit here and inhale plutonium. I may be crazy, but I’m not dumb.”  No, he’s not dumb. Nobody who works at Los Alamos is on the “dumb” end of the IQ scale, trust me.

For more information on the situation, I’d recommend reading this cnet post by fellow Los Alamos native Stephen Shankland. He actually knows what he’s talking about.

Like Stephen, I’m also thousands of miles away, but I’ve been able to keep track of what’s going on thanks to another crazy guy I went to high school with. Joe had experienced the Cerro Grande fire and decided not to evacuate this time, because his house was on the eastern edge of town, farthest from the flames, and close to several exit routes. He’s been taking advantage of his days off from work to riff on his guitar and bicycle around town taking pictures. He posts them along with useful updates on his Facebook page.

Place is a ghost town. So… I hooked up the Marshall stack, cranked the stereo to 11, and played along to Rush and Zeppelin at full volume, just cranking the tube amp on my guitars. No neighbors to annoy. I’ll not get to do this again in a long while.

Even the locals are turning to Joe for their updates, because – surprise, surprise — the media isn’t terribly informative. One significant thing I learned from his pictures is that Los Alamos now has a Starbucks. When I was growing up the big excitement was daylight donuts, the bowling alley and the Big Cheese Pizza. If there had been a decent coffee shop back then I might have considered staying. Heck, I might have settled in, written a young adult novel and made millions like J.K. Rowling. Damn.

Somebody asked Joe if anyone had harassed him for not evacuating. “Not a word,” he said. He watered his neighbors’ day-lilies and fed the birds. He’s established a phone warning system with other die-hards, so if things get dicey while he’s sleeping he’ll be warned in time to get out.

Rain isn’t imminent, and winds are picking up, he posts. On another Facebook thread, people suggest diverting the excessive Utah snowpack or the flooding Mississippi via pipeline. Civil engineering is slow, though. But wait a minute. What if we could crowdsource it? Get thousands of people to go to home depot, buy a length of pipeline, connect it with their neighbors… only problem is that, unlike Switzerland, the southwest is covered by vast expanses of nothing but sagebrush and jackrabbits.
I’ll be in Santa Fe, neighbor to “the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb” next week and can breathe the fumes in person. I can’t bear to see it burn. It’s such a beautiful landscape, and even though I haven’t lived there since I left for college in 1983, and my parents moved to Santa Fe in 1990, it’s still the place where all my childhood memories reside. Sailing balsa boats in the Bandelier creek. Jumping off the high dive at Barranca pool. Making the 2-mile trek down Barranca hill on my bike in the summertime to buy candy at the Piggly Wiggly on Conoco Hill. Bombing a ski slope with friends, poles tucked under my arms. Running across a rattlesnake while rooting around in the canyon behind my house. Making out with my boyfriend on the edge of the mesa, totally taking for granted the stunning 100-mile view in the background…

Meanwhile, nearer home, as I was taking Luc to the train station this morning I noticed a plume of black smoke rising from a nearby apartment building. When I got back, fire trucks were in place and three little girls in their nighties were cavorting on the lawn of the parish hall across the street. They turned the event into an opportunity, of sorts.

Photo Credit (panic button): Krysten_N via Compfight cc

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