Page van der LindenFire on the Hill

On 3 June 2011, my husband and I returned to Albuquerque after my visit to an advanced respiratory clinic in Denver (long story– that’s why I haven’t been writing here at ACW recently). We exited the airport only to be smothered by a wall of smoke. Our car was coated with ash, and we could see bits of it floating down in the dim light of the streetlights. It was from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, the biggest wildfire in Arizona history. We knew it was only a matter of time before the summer wildfires started here in New Mexico, and we weren’t mistaken. The Pachecho fire is raining ash on Santa Fe, and the Donaldson Fire is currently raging across at 96,745 acres in the southern part of the state.

Las Conchas Fire, viewed from Los Alamos National Bank

Las Conchas Fire, viewed from Los Alamos National Bank. Click for source.

But the worst fire — the biggest one in New Mexico history at 121,248 acres, the one that’s getting national media attention — is the Las Conchas fire, which is burning in the Santa Fe National Forest that surrounds Los Alamos, a.k.a. The Hill, the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project was born. It is spreading toward Santa Clara Pueblo, and has been described as “a very complex fire… hard to control”. The cause was a tree falling on a power line.



Past Experience Counts


If It Bleeds It Could Possibly Be Radioactive, It Leads

There are several reasons I wanted to write a piece about the fire. One has to do with how, despite the size of the fire, Los Alamos citizens handled the evacuation with remarkable efficiency (and are, in fact, returning home tomorrow, with LANL opening on Wednesday). Also, LANL itself was not damaged, partially because of previous experience with wildfires.

One of the other reasons I wrote this post was, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, to offer a “tip of the hat, wag of the finger” to the media, several bloggers, and their sources. Some either deliberately or unintentionally misunderstood how the labs handle wildfires, simply because they neglected to contact the right sources. Others preferred to turn to drama and half-truths in order to get their points across, when the real story was that climate change and the resulting catastrophic drought has made New Mexico a prime state for wildfires. We have seen the complete destruction of ecosystems, razing of forests, and deaths of countless wildlife living in the forest that is now a smoking wasteland. It was good to see that several journalists and bloggers definitely deserve a “tip of the hat” for asking the right questions and telling the story of the fire as it is, not as it could be.


Learning From The Past

The first reason I wanted to write this piece is that because of similar fires, e.g. the 48,000 acre Cerro Grande fire in the summer of 2000, the citizens of Los Alamos and nearby communities, are (unfortunately) used to the idea of evacuating their homes because of a wildfire. Not only that, but the fire destroyed or damaged over one hundred buildings at LANL itself, leading to extensive evaluation of firefighting, fireproofing, and overall fire prevention methods at LANL, with the hopes that were there to be a similar wildfire, the laboratory would remain safe.

Whether or not you already know this, it’s worth pointing out that as with any chemistry research facility, LANL laboratories contain any number of substances that may or may not be flammable; however, if they do catch on fire, there is the potential for the release of hazardous by-products. We owe a definite “tip of the hat” to local reporters who, instead of emphasizing the horrors of a fire in Technical Area 21 (a radioactive waste disposal area at LANL), asked what sort of fire protection the area has. Reporters Gadi Schwartz and Charlie Pabst discovered that during the remediation process, certain precautions have been taken:

The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years cleaning up the low-level radioactive waste, demolishing buildings and digging up things like radiation suits that were buried in the dirt above Los Alamos Canyon.

Metal buildings protect dig sites, and now with the threat of fire, crews have gone in and covered any exposed materials inside.

De Sousa said, “Wherever there was any hazardous waste showing we covered that up with an additional two feet of dirt, so that even if a fire was able to get in there, it would stop at the dirt. Nothing would burn and nothing would be released in the atmosphere.”

In addition to dirt, the buildings are set up to spew a firefighting foam.


This story is solid piece of reporting, providing details on how the labs are prepared for a fire.



Alarm, Fear, and Panic

Imagine you’ve just been told that you must evacuate your home because a wildfire is burning out of control, and you are no longer safe there. Imagine that you live in a nearby community (or even one several hundred miles away), and haven’t had to evacuate, but are concerned about the general effects of the fire.

The very last thing you need to read in internet updates is a rumor that fires have started within the LANL boundaries, that flames are advancing toward a nuclear waste storage facility, and the possible consequences if such a facility were to catch on fire. Sure, it’s all speculation, but what if?

Speculation like this is interesting only in non-emergency situations. It’s irresponsible, unsympathetic, and possibly dangerous otherwise — well worth a wag of the finger.

What am I talking about? Well, several things.

First of all, here is a photo of Area G at LANL. Note the distance between the smoke from a smallish fire and Area G.

Area G

Area G & Las Conchas fire, LANL. Click to enlarge.


Area G is where low-level waste is stored. It is also where transuranic, or TRU waste is stored. I recommend that you read the more complex definitions of these types of waste in this CRS document when you have time.

Anyway, a few days after the fire had really gotten going, several articles appeared quoting members of government watchdog and activist groups. These groups play important roles in keeping various government departments on their toes, but quotes like the following about Area G were neither appropriate nor warranted when the danger to the area was minimal at most. From the Associated Press:

Nuclear watchdogs fear that it will reach as many as 30,000, 55-gallon drums.

“The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they’ll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It’s a concern for everybody,” said Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.

And from Time magazine, we have an interview with Peter Stockton from the Project on Government Oversight. Again, they play an important role as a watchdog organization, but the interview was badly timed, especially when Area G (within TA-54) has a series of fire-protection mechanisms. This was simply not the right time to discuss hypotheticals, as interesting as they may be:

There is concern about a radioactive smoke plume forming if the wildfire reacts with LANL’s hazardous materials. What is the risk of that happening?

TA-54 contains 20,000-30,000 drums of waste, but just because it’s low-level waste doesn’t mean anything. If that becomes airborne, and just a speck of plutonium gets into your lungs, you’re going to end up with cancer down the road. It’s the most toxic substance known to man. It would be very nasty if those drums blew apart, and the wind carried them downwind.

Note: the only part of LANL that caught on fire was Technical Area 49, or TA-49, and it was extinguished within an hour. Click here.


Panic, Fear Unwarranted

Here’s where I’m going to give a lot of hat tips to bloggers as well as journalists.


Regarding the barrels in Area G, former LANL chemist and Project Leader Cheryl Rofer asked around. Here‘s what she found out:

Yesterday I talked to someone who has actually repacked some of the drums and has dealt with the paperwork. I learned some things I didn’t know.

The drums are not just any old things from Joe’s junkyard, but are manufactured to a list of specifications, including the fit of the covers and closures. Each one has a hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filter so that air can move into and out of it with changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure without carrying waste materials out.

There are no mysterious sludges and uncontrolled chemicals in the drums.

The fabric buildings have fire suppression systems. I realized, some time after yesterday’s conversation, that this must be the foam that was mentioned in a few accounts of the drums…

She also makes a very good point: that the lab needs to be more open if it doesn’t want paranoid rumors floating about:

I’m wondering why the Lab didn’t say all these things, perhaps issue a fact sheet, in response to media inquiries. Early Lab responses on the subject were a refusal to comment. But this has long been the way the Los Alamos National Laboratory has handled such things.


The blog at the journal Science also makes an excellent point: (bold emphasis mine)

While the edge of the fire is only a few dozen meters from the edge of the lab’s property, it is roughly 13 km from the most sensitive location, the so-called “Area G.” That site is a 63-acre storage facility where thousands of drums of nuclear waste sit, many of which are outdoors.

But between the fire and that site is the remnants of a forest that was largely burned during a horrific 2000 fire on lab property. That fire burned “90%” of the flammable material from the west side of the lab, says Los Alamos retiree Charles Mansfield, who worked as a physicist at the lab for 17 years and also as a forest firefighter, a so-called smokejumper, for 11 years. Mansfield says he’s “not very concerned” about the fire reaching spreading east to Area G.

And, as we see, the fire didn’t spread.


Finally, the ever-reliable John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal has been writing article after article; it’s worth checking them all out, but one of them said it all, to the people who insisted that we’d all have lungs full of plutonium by now:

Smoke Biggest Health Concern, Not Nukes

The smoke is bad news — take it from someone who’s been affected by it all the way down here in Albuquerque. But it’s not radioactive, at least; earlier tests were confirmed by more recent tests, in fact.


Caution Is The Name Of The Game, Not Drama

The fact that LANL didn’t suffer any damage and (thus far) the fire hasn’t caused any human deaths doesn’t mean everything is okay, and that everything will be just dandy in the future. In fact, the opposite is true; the Las Conchas fire continues to burn, and is endangering wildlife, watersheds, and destroying forests as we speak. The United States desert southwest has been in a catastrophic drought for a long time now (data and map here). John Fleck’s piece in today’s Albuquerque Journal gets right to the point:

The factors that set up trouble in the Southwest’s forests are complex – a warming climate and forest management practices over the 20th century that allowed a terrifying buildup of fuel. There was simply too much wood and plant material for the ecosystem to support, said Allen, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has been studying the relationship between forest, fire and climate in the Jemez Mountains for 25 years. Something had to give.

That set the stage. Epic drought lit the match.

There are other fires burning around New Mexico; conditions were prime, and it’s never good when there are facilities that might be in the path of a fire and can add to the danger of the final product. LANL was lucky, as well as prepared.

But when we’re talking about risk, especially in the nuclear world, people still bring up the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock”. In recent years, the Clock has been set to include climate change as part of the overall threat to our world. The conditions leading to the Las Conchas fire were undoubtedly influenced by our warming climate.

The fact that the fire got close enough to LANL, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, to make everyone nervous, plus the fact that this fire was partly caused by one of the Doomsday Clock factors, should not be lost on anyone. It’s a collision of events, and we should keep it at the forefront of our thoughts. Caution. Use caution with these things we build at LANL, and use caution when handling the Earth around it.


Caution, not panic or fear, are the operative words.


  1. FSB (History)

    I am not disputing what you say, but is there evidence that climate change caused this situation? I tend to agree, but am wondering if there’s evidence to back up what you say.

    • page (History)

      It contributes. There are multiple variables, though, as you can tell.

    • John Fleck (History)

      FSB – There’s a rapidly growing literature on the linkage between climate change and increased forest fire risk in western North America. I linked to a few of the key papers in a blog post that went along with the newspaper story Page mentioned:

      It is worth noting that some of the key work on this question, by folks from the University of Arizona tree ring lab and the community they work with (including Craig Allen and Park Williams, both among the evacuees), has been done in the very mountains around Los Alamos that are burning today.

  2. Linda Rockwell (History)

    An excellent piece. I was so annoyed by the hysterical, overwrought, inaccurate reporting that occurred when the fire was close to LANL. Almost all of it was from national, rather than local, reporters. I did appreciate the careful, reasonable reporting of John Fleck, Jeremy Jojola, Charlie Pabst and other local reporters during that period. Thank you for your well-reasoned, well-researched, non-hysterical take on this subject.

  3. Steve (History)

    It doesn’t really matter what the facts are, those who take the position that the labs work is evil will continue to spread misinformation because its consistent with their point of vies (and I might add the point of view of those who contribute to useless and misbegotten causes). The real issue is that since the Department’s of Agriculture and Interior mismanage the forests by not correctly removing these fuels in the first place, then we will always have fires like this (or greater). It is time for government to stop acting stupid and fostering the whims of a few morons (environmentalist) and start doing what the majority of people want. The global warming that we may be experiencing is part of the normal cycle that has been with us long before we started measuring things.

    • page (History)

      Heh, hey now, I’m an environmentalist, and the government never listens to me! I get your general point, though. (I think that climate change is anthropogenic, but that’s another discussion for another place.)

      Thanks for the different perspective.

    • Mary Ann Kelley (History)

      Ah, yes. But the words “controlled burn” still sound scary to some of us. Some real management is in order.

    • MYM (History)

      I totally agree, Steve. We must learn to live as humans in the middle of nature. If thinning of forests had been permitted the fuel might not have been so bad. At the same time, there are ebbs and flows when it comes to the earth and how it takes care of its own. Fires are necessary, as are bark beetles, etc. Taking things to an extreme doesn’t help the relationship humans must have with nature.

  4. Tim (History)

    Even as part of a quote, major news magazines should not print the sentence “most toxic substance known to man” with respect to plutonium.

    It has thoroughly been debunked thousands of times. It’s not even the most toxic element.

    • page (History)

      If one speck of it could kill, I’d be dead many times over. So would a lot of my other radiochemist friends who’ve worked in labs where there were either accidents or contamination they didn’t know about (yes, typical ancient DOE labs). So I agree.

      “Plutonium” is a headline-grabber. But “beryllium”, IMO, is worse (for example), and it doesn’t grab headlines except in cities where there are labs with Be problems, etc.

    • MYM (History)

      One could eat a whole gram of plutonium and have nothing happen to them. Even those that have had actual uptakes (inhalation of plutonium) have come out unscathed with the correct treatment. Cigarettes are much more toxic…but those headlines are old news, they need something that sells, dammit.

  5. Dave C (History)

    Best article summarizing the scenario to date. Thanks for taking the time to put this in perspective. Too many pundits are generating more ‘heat’ than ‘light.’

  6. Jennifer Dietrich (History)

    THANK YOU for writing this! I actually yelled at the computer a few times when the barrel question kept coming up.

    I do not dispute in any way the right of those folks concerned about waste at LANL to ask questions and to try to keep LANL’s waste handling practices in the public eye. In fact, I think they need to keep that up. However, when a horrific fire is burning out of control, people have had to evacuate their homes, and everyone is desperate for information, that is not the time to bring it up. Photo after photo kept coming out, showing that there was no fire near Area G (or anywhere else on lab property, for that matter). There was no danger to those drums; thus, it was unnecessary to take up valuable fire briefing time with nonsense about the drums.

    Now that it appears the worst of the fire danger to the lab has passed, I would like to ask that all those folks with concerns about the barrels, or waste handling practices at LANL to speak up and ask your questions. THIS is an appropriate time for you to air your concerns. Write a letter to Charlie McMillan, to your congressman, heck, even to your senator. If waste is truly such a concern that it needs to be addressed during a crisis, surely it’s still a concern, and should be addressed now?

    Jennifer Dietrich

  7. Magpie11 (History)

    This all confirms what a friend of mine in Los Alamos has been saying. Her husband works at LANL.

  8. CaptainCanuck (History)

    Welcome back Page! It’s great to see a new post from you, hope you’re feeling better.

  9. Dana Lippiatt-Wood (History)

    Very well written. Thank you. I have been annoyed enough at the fear mongers that I’ve kept silent instead of intelligently refuting as you have. Perhaps it was my Irish temper or because I simply am human, but I have wanted to strangle a few reporters. Los Alamos is so misunderstood that it would take an act of Congress, God and who knows who to untangle the misinformation. Your article is helpful and smart.

  10. Colin Kaminski (History)

    I have heard multiple accounts of what is actually in those barrels. Do we really know? Even though they don’t sound like a fire risk they will have to be disposed of eventually.

    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      Colin, the reason you have heard multiple accounts is that there are a number of people out there making stuff up.

      The person I talked to has actually repacked barrels recovered from the landfill. That requires knowing what is allowed to be in them and certifying that that is all that is in them. Seems reliable to me.

  11. Colin Kaminski (History)

    Hi Cheryl,
    I loved your post:

    But, it does not include an inventory of the contents. I have seen how the labs design things and I never questioned that the barrels would have been engineered for the task. I am curious about the contents. What era were they created and what are the contents like?


    • Cheryl Rofer (History)

      I don’t have an inventory of the contents, and I don’t have the times the waste was created at my fingertips.

      But I do have a general idea: paper wipes, booties, rubber gloves, lab coats, plastic bottles, tools make up most of it. Some barrels have a small amount (limited by the regs, but I can’t recall exactly) of liquid in them that has been soaked up in kitty litter, no free liquid allowed.

  12. Nancy (History)

    Colleagues tell me is that for nearly 20 years antinuclear activists have prevented that material at LANL from being transported to WIPP, the repository in southern New Mexico. I wonder if any who were involved in the effort to keep the material where it is were also behind these terrifying (and baseless) scenarios.

    Page, thank you for this level-headed, reality-based account. Helpful contribution to the discourse.

  13. kme (History)

    It’s interesting to see what is considered a large fire elsewhere – 121,000 acres would be considered quite a small fire around here.

  14. Mark Gubrud (History)

    In the past few weeks the activist and leftist online media have been hyping an apparent confluence of three events — the Fukushima meltdowns, the flooding around the Ft. Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska, and the wildfires near Los Alamos — to create an impression of everything nuclear gone out of control, all at once, and raging like Godzilla around the planet threatening everyone.

    The Fukushima disaster is of course very real, but there has never been any good reason to think the floods or wildfires posed the imminent threat of significant radiation releases.

    Certain anti-nuclear activists, especially those more active in their opposition to nuclear power than to nuclear weapons, are notoriously unconcerned about the accuracy of information they disseminate. Facts and arguments, for them, are to be fired as ordnance, and never recalled. Perhaps sometimes one should drop a line that has been discredited, but far more damage to the cause would be done by openly admitting you were mistaken.

    I have no doubt that they reject your view that it is “irresponsible, unsympathetic, and possibly dangerous” to scare people at a time when events in the news conspire to create a favorable environment for fear and loathing of everything nuclear. I have no doubt that in their view, they are the leaders of popular resistance to evils being foisted upon the public by corrupt and uncaring politicians, corporations and technocrats of every description, who hide behind secrecy and public inattention whenever they can. I have no doubt that in their view, it is necessary to exploit whatever opportunities arise to generate waves of public outrage and activism.

    I am not sure they are wrong in this judgment.

    Therefore it comes down to which side you are on, whether or not you support the abolition of nuclear power, nuclear weapons, or both. If your view is that nuclear power, nuclear weapons, or both, pose a sometimes sleeping, sometimes stirring, existential threat to human beings and the environment, then you will take every opportunity, such as whenever the monster snores, to try to raise that wave of opposition that will finally result in substantive and decisive political action.

    I must admit it’s not my style. I’m a believer in nuclear deterrence and arms control, and in the urgent need and possibility of nuclear weapons abolition. I’m agnostic about nuclear power. I think the cause of nuclear weapons abolition is better served by maintaining a distinction between the two issues, and best served by rigorous adherence to accuracy when the facts are known and to honesty about what is not known.

    But one thing I do not know is who is ultimately right about the question of praxis in movement-building — whether it is ultimately productive, and even necessary, to accept or even to propagate distortions when they serve to mobilize public response to important issues that otherwise stay below the threshold of actual change.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I should add: Or whether it is more important, for the sake of one’s own ultimate credibility and effectiveness, for that of our comrades in the cause, and in simple humility given the vastness of our ignorance, to always try one’s utmost to tell only the truth.

  15. MYM (History)

    Thank you so much for this well-written piece! It is the best I’ve read so far. I’ll be sharing it with my coworkers (at LANL) and also those that have been spreading the dramatic rumors. It was also well-researched. Kudos to you!

  16. Gwyneth Cravens (History)

    Thanks for writing this thoughtful and informative article and placing potential threats in a reality-based perspective.

    The recent explosion of nuclear fear-mongering is remarkably free of science-based information.