Wild Fires in Washington

June 29, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A wildfire burns near a nuclear facility in Washington State. Kwame Holman begins.

KWAME HOLMAN: Flames aided by 100-degree temperatures and 30-mile-an-hour wind gusts overwhelmed firefighters at the Hanford nuclear reservation. The fire was started Tuesday afternoon by a car wreck. It has spread quickly, consuming the arid sagebrush that covers most of the 560-square-mile site in southeastern Washington State. At least 25 homes have been destroyed. Some 7,000 people have been evacuated from towns just south of the sprawling reservation.

WOMAN: I was on my way home, and all of a sudden a police car pulled up to me, and I pulled my earphones down and the police officer said, “get off the street, get home, and get in your car and evacuate, and tell as many of your neighbors as possible, because the fire is headed this way.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Hanford was established as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Today, its mission is cleaning up radioactive and hazardous waste created during 40 years of plutonium production for the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Parts of the site still are highly radioactive, and if fire reaches them, contaminated particles could be released into the atmosphere. Energy officials said so far there were no known releases of radioactive waste.

JULIE ERICKSON, Department of Energy Spokeswoman: We are working on trying to keep the fire from the 300 area where there is nuclear materials stored, but at this time, we don’t feel like there is any threat.

KWAME HOLMAN: More than 600 firefighters from across the region are expected to join the battle against the blaze.

JIM LEHRER: And now to the governor of Washington State, Gary Locke. Governor, welcome.

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Governor, you’ve just returned from a hard look at the fire scene. Describe what you saw.

GOV. GARY LOCKE, Washington: Well, what we saw from the air and now we’re on the ground, is just hundreds of thousands of acres of utter devastation. This fire moved so rapidly. Talking to people, they were barely to able to get out of their homes and escape with their own lives. But you could see the fire going right up to the parking lots of some of the facilities at the Hanford nuclear reservation. Thank goodness for the parking lots or the concrete that stopped it. The fire appears to be contained, but there are some still some hot spots. And if the wind picks up, then there is the risk and the danger of the fire reigniting areas. We had to evacuate whole towns last night — tens of thousands of people. But the fire appears to be contained, thanks to the coordinated effort of federal, state and local firefighters and agencies all across the State of Washington.

JIM LEHRER: So when you use contained, you don’t mean that it’s under control necessarily. Contained is a different kind of word, right?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, we think that most of the fire is out, but there are half a dozen actual spot fires here and there that still have flames, and with the wind picking up, it could reignite areas and still poses a danger. But right now, things are a lot calmer. People have returned to their homes, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what’s the injuries situation thus far?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, there was a fatality in the accident that caused the fire. There are some people who had to be airlifted to trauma centers because of second-degree burns, smoke inhalation problems. But entire city of Benton had to be evacuated last night, and one-third of another major city had to be evacuated because of the smoke and the… the fire is actually consuming neighborhoods. But right now, it appears that only one or two people may have passed away, and injuries were minimal.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what is the risk that remains? You say that wind could come along. What’s the extent of the risk?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, it’s something that we’re working with, and we have Forest Service, we have our state natural services or natural resource agencies, people who normally fight forest fires, here on the scene, along with local fire officials. They’re really trying to put out these hot spots so that later on tonight or this afternoon as the wind picks up, we will not have those flames carried, sparking another fire because last night, the fires were jumping roads that were 150 yards across, or rivers that were 200 yards across. It was that intense. And so trying to contain these fires and put them out is absolutely essential to prevent any new flare-up.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what that’s like, Governor. I mean a fire comes up, say, to a road and essentially it stops. But then a wind can come along and literally lift it up over the concrete and into wherever it could catch on and continue the fire?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: That’s right. We heard reports from law enforcement officials, fire officials and citizens that said that the… a wall of fire 20, 30 feet high was coming at them 20, 30 miles an hour. They could barely keep ahead of it in their own cars. And then the flames would just jump over the entire roadway and go to the other side of the road and ignite the grass and the debris and just keep on traveling at great, great speeds. So a land break of even 100 yards, 100 feet did not stop this wall of fire.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what’s your assessment of the risk involving these old nuclear buildings and areas which still have some radioactive material in them?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, I’ve flown over the area. We’ve talked with officials from the Department of Energy. Everything seems to be safe. We’ve been monitoring and testing the air all night.– the smoke from the fire and there’s no evidence of any type of radioactivity, no evidence of any hazardous or toxic chemicals in the air as a result of the fire. So apparently everything is okay, and people can be reassured about that. But we’re still continuing to monitor, test the air sample and making sure that there is no type of toxic exposure to the citizens or even the firefighters working on this blaze.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a plan in waiting in case you do run a test and, “oh, my goodness, “somebody says there is radioactive particles in the air? What do you then?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, we have been testing constantly. And it’s been continuous testing ever since the fire started. And we’re getting the results back immediately. And so if that were to happen, but because the fire appears to be virtually out now, but we’re still working on a few hot spots here and there, I don’t think there’s much danger to that. But if there is a danger, even in the future, a future year, we have emergency response teams and evacuation programs in place. And that was tested last night when entire towns had to be immediately evacuated. So everything’s working well.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you’ve declared a state of emergency for one county and called up the National Guard. Why did you do that, and what will they do?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, last night when the fire was still raging and the fire didn’t really appear to subside until 6:00 or 7:00 this morning. Last night I declared a state of emergency to mobilize our National Guard to have them available in the help of the evacuation of the town, to make sure that there was no crime or looting occurring and that the evacuation was orderly — but also to help reinforce local law enforcement and fire fighter… fire fighting officials as they concentrated on the fires itself. We’ve had incredible coordination, cooperation by all levels of government, from the federal agencies to our state agencies, health departments, local fire officials and police agencies. And fire agencies came from all across the state to help out last night. And they were able to put virtually the entire fire out this morning. But again, a couple of hot spots — they’re still focusing on that. And with the winds, we want to make sure that we’re able to get every location of a fire completely out and cooled down so that there are no flare-ups. And we don’t want this to suddenly flare up again and have another 200,000 acres on fire.

JIM LEHRER: President Clinton today offered to do whatever the federal government could do to assist in this effort. Do you have everything you need, Governor, to fight this fire?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, we’re working with everybody. And we’ve had incredible support from the federal agencies, from the Forest Service to the Bureau of Land Management, our own state natural resource people and local fire officials, U.S. Secretary of Energy Richardson will be coming tomorrow… or actually tonight and will be touring the reservation, the nuclear reservation tomorrow, and we’ll give him a thorough briefing. and we’ll have a better assessment of all the damage. But if you look around here, a lot of homes have been destroyed, a lot of structures, over 30 homes have been wiped out, and entire towns evacuated as a precaution. People are pulling together. They’re in grief over their loss of property and homes, their possessions, their photographers, their memories. But thank goodness, it appears that almost nobody was killed.

JIM LEHRER: Governor, what are we looking at there behind you? Are these cars that were destroyed in the fire?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Yeah, right behind me is what used to be a carport and a garage. And if you look inside the vehicles, molten glass, bumpers that have been completely melted, tires that are completely gone, and all you see are just a few carp and shreds. It’s utterly amazing, how hot, how intense this fire was and how quickly it spread.

JIM LEHRER: Where exactly are you, Governor? Where are you standing now — in what town and try to set it for us in terms of Seattle or other markers that the rest of us might recognize.

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Well, I’m in the northern part of the City of Benton, which is in the part of the tri-cities area. We’re just about five, ten miles from the Hanford nuclear reservation, where the Cold War… the development of the atomic bomb was done and the research conducted. We’re about 200 miles from the City of Seattle. We’re in eastern Washington, in the arid part, the agricultural part of the State of Washington. We’re about 200 miles from the city of Seattle.

JIM LEHRER: And this 150,000, 200,000 acres that burned, what actually burned? Was it grass? Was it trees? A combination? What?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Mostly grass, sagebrush, brush area, grass, agricultural land, just… but grass lands throughout the Hanford nuclear reservation a lot of the hillsides where cattle and farming are occurring.

JIM LEHRER: And like the town where you are now, this is outside the reservation and there was just no way to deep it inside the reservation, correct?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: This fire was jumping over highways and jumping over rivers that are several hundred yards wide. This moved so quickly, people were lucky to escape the fire.

JIM LEHRER: And the worst is over, right, Governor?

GOV. GARY LOCKE: It appears the worst is over, but we still have a lot of hot spots that a lot of different groups are working on. We want to make sure that we douse them 100% so that there’s no chance of a new flare-up that would spread back onto the reservation or into the neighboring communities.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Governor, thank you and good luck, sir.

GOV. GARY LOCKE: Thank you.