LOS ALAMOS NM (AP) — Public schools were closed and bug out bags packed this week as a stubborn wildfire crept within miles of the town of Los Alamos and its National Security Lab American companion – where apocalyptic threat assessment is a specialty and wildfire is an enticing equation.

Lighter winds on Friday allowed for the most intense air attack this week on those blazes west of Santa Fe as well as the largest US wildfire burning farther east, south of Taos.

“We had all kinds of planes flying today,” Fire Chief Todd Abel said during a Santa Fe National Forest briefing Friday night. “We haven’t had this opportunity for a long time.”

In Southern California, where a fire has destroyed at least 20 homes south of Los Angeles in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel, Orange County emergency officials reduced the mandatory evacuation zone by 900 residences on Friday. at 131.

Those who remained on high alert to prepare for evacuations west of Santa Fe included scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory who operate supercomputers to look into the future of wildfires in the western United States. States, where climate change and persistent drought are fueling the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires.

Research and partnerships could eventually yield reliable predictions that shape how large swathes of national forests are thinned — or selectively burned — to ward off disastrous conflagrations that can quickly overrun cities, sterilize soils, and alter forever. ecosystems.

“It’s actually something that we’re really trying to leverage to research ways to deal with fires in the future,” said Rod Linn, a senior lab scientist who is leading efforts to create a supercomputing tool. that predicts the outcome of fires under specific conditions. terrain and conditions.

The high stakes for the research are highlighted during the furious start to the spring fire season, which includes a blaze that has steadily moved closer to Los Alamos National Laboratory, sparking preparations for a possible evacuation.

The lab grew out of World War II efforts to design nuclear weapons at Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project. He now conducts a range of national security work and research in various areas of renewable energy, nuclear fusion, space exploration, supercomputing and efforts to limit global threats ranging from disease to cyberattacks. . The lab is one of two US sites preparing to manufacture plutonium cores for use in nuclear weapons.

With nearly 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze, lab officials say critical infrastructure is well protected from the blaze, which spans 67 square miles (175 square kilometers).

Yet scientists are ready.

“We’ve got our bags packed, our cars loaded, the kids home from school – it’s kind of a crazy day,” said Adam Atchley, a father-of-two and lab hydrologist who studies fire ecology. of forest.

Wildfires that reach Los Alamos National Laboratory increase the risk, even slightly, of dumping chemical waste and radionuclides such as plutonium into the air or into ash carried by runoff after a fire.

Mike McNaughton, an environmental health physicist at Los Alamos, agrees that chemical and radiological waste was obviously mismanaged in the lab’s early years.

“People had a war to win, and they didn’t care,” McNaughton said. “Emissions are now very, very low compared to historical emissions.”

Dave Fuehne, the lab’s team leader for air emissions measurement, explains that a network of about 25 air monitors surrounds the facility to ensure that no dangerous pollution escapes the lab unharmed. noticed. Additional high-volume monitors were deployed when a fire broke out in April.

Trees and underbrush on campus are removed manually — 3,500 tons (3,175 metric tons) over the past four years, said Jim Jones, the lab’s wildfire mitigation project manager.

“We don’t do burnouts,” Jones said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Jay Coghlan, director of the environmental group Nuclear Watch New Mexico, wants a more in-depth assessment of the lab’s current fire hazards and questions whether producing plutonium wells is appropriate.

This year’s spring fires also destroyed California hilltop mansions and ravaged more than 422 square miles (1,100 square kilometers) of dry northeastern New Mexico. In Colorado, authorities said Friday that one person died in a fire that destroyed eight mobile homes in Colorado Springs.

The sprawling fire in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountain range is the largest blaze in the United States, with at least 262 homes destroyed and thousands displaced.

Nearly 2,000 firefighters are now assigned to this fire with a perimeter of 501 miles (806 kilometers) – a distance that would stretch from San Diego to San Francisco.

Atchley says extreme weather conditions change the trajectory of many fires.

“A wildfire in the 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s is probably going to behave differently than a wildfire in 2020,” he said.

Atchley says he contributes to research aimed at better understanding and preventing the most destructive wildfires, superheated flames that shoot through the upper crowns of mature pine trees. He says climate change is an unmistakable factor.

“It increases the burning window for wildfires. … Wildfire season is year-round,” Atchley said. “And it’s happening not just in the United States, but in Australia and Indonesia and around the world.”

He’s not alone in suggesting the answer may be more frequent, lower-intensity fires that are deliberately ignited to mimic a burn-and-regenerate cycle that may take place every two to six years in New Mexico before the outbreak. arrival of Europeans.

“What we’re trying to do at Los Alamos is figure out how to safely implement prescribed burning … given that it’s extremely difficult with climate change,” he said.

Examples of intentional prescribed burns that got out of control include the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that swept through residential areas of Los Alamos and 12 square miles of the lab – more than a quarter of campus. The fire destroyed more than 230 homes and 45 structures at the lab. In 2011, a bigger and faster fire burned the surroundings of the laboratory.

Atchley said western forests can be seen and measured as a giant storehouse that stores carbon and can help control climate change – if extreme fires can be limited.

Land managers say America’s vast national forests cannot be thinned by hand and machine alone.

Linn, the physicist, says the wildfire modeling software is being shared with U.S. Forest Service land managers, as well as the Geological Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, for preliminary testing to see if it can make prescribed fires easier to predict and control.

“We don’t recommend anyone to blindly use any of these models,” he said. “We’re in this critical phase of building those relationships with land managers and helping them start to make that their role model as well.”

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