Background: Firestorm

May 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Firefighters say they were making progress toward containing the fires in and around Los Alamos, NM, until hot, dry winds of up to 60 miles-per-hour aided the flames today. So far, some 400 homes have been destroyed. Thousands have been evacuated from the North Central area of New Mexico that includes Los Alamos and White Rock. Today, some 10,000 more residents were urged to leave Espanola to the North.

MAN: It’s pretty scary — probably the biggest thing to happen in this town.

KWAME HOLMAN: The National Park Service deliberately set the fire a week ago as a so-called “prescribed burn” designed to clear brush and prevent catastrophic wildfires. But stoked by wind and low humidity, the flames quickly flared out of control, spreading over 18,000 acres.

National laboratory safe

The blaze passed through part of the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory yesterday, but this afternoon, officials said it posed no threat to nuclear and other weapons stored in underground bunkers and fortified buildings.

BILL RICHARDSON, Secretary of Energy: We believe that our extensive nuclear materials throughout the complex are safe. They are located in many fire resistant buildings, and we believe that the public should not be concerned about that. We have an excellent security force. We also at this time are conducting some radiological tests. We do not believe at this time there has been any radiological releases, but at this moment we are conducting tests to see if there is any plutonium or beryllium. We believe again that there have been no radiological leakages.

JOHN BROWN, Los Alamos Laboratory Director: What might be referred to is that we do store high explosives in concrete bunkers, the fire did burn through that area, and we did just what we wanted to do. We left those high explosives in those bunkers, the fire blew straight through; it charred the area, but did not harm those bunkers. So everything is safe with respect to the high explosives.

High winds hinder firefighters

KWAME HOLMAN: As today’s high winds came in, firefighters were prevented from challenging the blaze directly. Water-bombing helicopters and airplanes saw only limited duty.

FIREFIGHTER: Engine one is on their way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some fire crews did manage to protect homes along the edges of the fire’s path. Today, New Mexico’s senior Senator, Republican Pete Domenici, vowed to find out why Park Service officials set the fire last week in spite of an unfavorable weather forecast.

SEN. PETE DOMENICI, (R) New Mexico: Somebody made a mistake and obviously we have to begin an investigation as to how it started and did somebody do something that should not have been considering the dry condition, the drought, and the winds, et cetera.

KWAME HOLMAN: In addition to this blaze, New Mexico officials are contending with at least two other wild fires elsewhere in the state.