Menaced by flames, nuclear lab peers into future of wildfire

By MORGAN LEE – Associated Press

LOS ALAMOS NM (AP) – Public schools were closed and evacuation bags were packed this week when a stubborn forest fire crept within miles of the city of Los Alamos and its companion American National Security Lab – where assessing apocalyptic threats is a specialty and wilderness fire is a fancy equation.

People preparing to evacuate included a team of researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory using supercomputers to look into the future of forest fires in the American West, where climate change and a lasting drought are increasing the frequency and intensity of forest and grass fires.

Research and partnerships can eventually provide reliable predictions that shape how large traces of national forests are thinned out – or selectively burned – to ward off catastrophically hot fires that can quickly overwhelm cities, sterilize soil and forever change ecosystems.

“This is actually something we’re really trying to use to look for ways to deal with fire in the future,” said Rod Linn, a senior lab researcher who is leading the effort to create a supercomputer tool that predicts the outcome of fires in specific terrain and conditions.

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The high stakes in the research are evident during the furious start of the spring forest fires, which include a fire that has steadily set in against the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which triggers preparations for a potential evacuation.

The lab is one of two US facilities preparing to manufacture plutonium nuclei for use in nuclear weapons. Laboratory officials say critical infrastructure is well protected from the fire, which spans 175 square kilometers.

Still, the researchers are ready.

“We’ve packed our bags, loaded the cars, the kids are home from school – it’s a crazy day,” said Adam Atchley, a father of two and a laboratory hydrologist studying ecology in forest fires.

Forest fires that reach Los Alamos National Laboratory increase the risk – albeit somewhat – of chemical waste and radionuclides such as plutonium spreading through the air or in the ash transported away by runoff after a fire.

Mike McNaughton, an environmental health physicist at Los Alamos, admits that chemical and radiological waste was clearly abused during the laboratory’s first year, which arose from World War II’s attempts to design nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project.

“People had a war to win and they were not careful,” McNaughton said. “Emissions now are very, very small compared to the historical emissions.”

Dave Fuehne, the laboratory’s team leader for measuring air emissions, says that a network of about 25 air monitors surrounds the facility. Additional high-volume monitors were put out when a fire broke out in April.

Trees and forests on campus are removed manually – 3,500 tons (3,175 tons) over the past four years, says Jim Jones, director of the lab’s Wildland Fire Mitigation Project.

“We’re not burning,” Jones said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Flames have also destroyed mansions on a hill in California and chewed their way through more than 422 square miles (1,100 square kilometers) of tinder-dry mountain slopes in northeastern New Mexico.

The fire in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range is the largest fire in the United States, with thousands of residents still on the run as it continued its march on Friday through thick ponderosa pine forests and destroyed at least 170 homes in accessible areas that have been surveyed. In Colorado, authorities said Friday that one person died in a fire that destroyed eight RVs in Colorado Springs.

Atchley says he contributes to research aimed at better understanding and preventing the most destructive forest fires, overheated fires that jump through the upper crowns of mature pines. He says that climate change is an unmistakable factor.

“It raises the window for burning forest fires. … the season for forest fires is year-round,” says Atchley. “And this is happening not just in the United States, but in Australia and Indonesia and around the world.”

He is not alone in suggesting that the answer may be more frequent, lower-intensity fires deliberately set in motion to mimic a cycle of combustion and renewal that may have taken place every two to six years in New Mexico before the arrival of Europeans.

“What we’re trying to do in Los Alamos is find out how to implement prescribed fire safely … given that climate change is extremely difficult,” he said.

Examples of intentional prescribed burns that escaped control include the 2000 Cerro Grande fire that swept through the residential areas of Los Alamos and over 12 square miles of the lab – more than a quarter of campus. The fire destroyed more than 230 homes and 45 structures in the lab. In 2011, a larger and faster fire burned the outskirts of the lab.

Atchley said that the forests of the western world can be seen and measured as a giant reserve that stores coal and can help keep climate change in check – if extreme fires can be limited.

Land managers say that expansive US national forests cannot be thinned by hand and machine alone.

Linn, a physicist, says that model software for forest fires is shared with land managers at the US Forest Service, as well as the Geological Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, for preliminary tests to see if it can make prescribed fires easier to predict and control.

“We do not advocate for anyone to use any of these models blindly,” he said. “Be in the essential phase of building these relationships with land managers and help them start making it their model as well.”

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