Fire Roars at Wash. Nuke Reservation
The Associated Press
Jun 29 2000 9:41PM ET
RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) - A wildfire ignited by a car crash raged across the dry sagebrush of the Hanford nuclear complex Thursday, raising fears that the flames would spread radioactive material.
At least 25 homes were destroyed, and about 7,000 people were driven from their homes by the second blaze in two months to threaten a U.S. nuclear weapons installation.
``It was just a fireball two or three times taller than our house,'' said Marty Peck, 43, who watched the flames approach his house in Benton City from a mountain about two miles away.
No radiation releases had been detected by state or federal air-monitoring devices, Department of Energy spokeswoman Julie Erickson said, though the fire had spread across three old radioactive waste sites on the reservation.
The fire, which began Tuesday, had scorched 190,000 acres by Thursday afternoon. The National Weather Service warned of wind up to 30 mph and a continuation of 100-degree temperatures. Erickson said the fire was at least 40 percent contained.
U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was headed to Hanford and planned to survey the damage Friday.
In May, a blaze that was set to clear brush near the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico raged out of control, forcing more than 25,000 people to evacuate and destroying more than 200 homes.
Officials said nuclear material was safely protected in bunkers at Los Alamos, though there are now fears that radioactive material in the soil could be washed into rivers and streams from hillsides denuded by fire.
At Hanford, which contains the nation's largest volume of radioactive waste from nuclear weapons, the fire was about three miles from highly radioactive material in an area that once handled spent nuclear fuel, Erickson said.
``We don't feel any of our facilities are imminently threatened at this time,'' she said.
She declined to discuss how authorities would handle a fire at nuclear sites or whether radioactive releases were possible under such circumstances.
The most dangerous of the radioactive waste at Hanford - about 170 miles southeast of Seattle and northeast of Portland, Ore. - is in underground tanks. Additional firebreaks were cut to protect nuclear sites, and Erickson said most are surrounded by gravel.
At about noon Thursday, the fire burned over a former radioactive waste-disposal area, used to store low-level radioactive liquid waste during plutonium production, near the center of the 560-square-mile Energy Department site.
At some point, the fire also burned over two waste-storage ponds that had not been used for many years, Erickson said. Both were dry and overgrown with vegetation.
But so far, on-site monitoring ``indicates there is no problem,'' said Katie Larson, another DOE spokeswoman.
All three sites are near the center of the reservation, where firefighters were working to extinguish two ``hot spots'' Thursday. The fire line was about three miles from highly radioactive contamination in an area that once handled spent nuclear fuel, Erickson said earlier Thursday.
An anti-nuclear group warned the fire could burn radioactive soil and spew contaminated particles into the air.
``We urge state officials to independently monitor to protect the public and firefighters from the hazards of airborne radioactive contaminated particles,'' said Gerald Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest.
Al Conklin, head of the state Health Department's division of radiological protection, said the state is using monitoring devices, and ``we're not going let the Department of Energy get away with anything if we find anything positive.''
At one point Wednesday, the Energy Department declared an emergency as flames neared a lab where nuclear and hazardous waste samples are stored. Winds later pushed the fire away.
Most of the roughly 7,000 people forced from their homes Wednesday in the communities of West Richland and Benton City, just south of the reservation, were allowed back into their homes on Thursday, though residents were warned that they could be asked to leave again. The Red Cross set up shelters and Gov. Gary Locke activated the National Guard to assist in evacuations.
``The flames were about three miles away. I could see them from my living room. They were coming fast. That's when we split,'' said 50-year-old Richard Newby of Benton City, who spent Thursday at an emergency shelter.
Hanford was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Plutonium was produced at the site until 1986.
Today, workers at Hanford are cleaning the waste up. About 8,000 non-essential personnel were told to stay home Thursday, leaving 400 to 500 at the site.
Nationwide, the fire season already is the worst since 1996. More than 48,000 fires have burned 1.3 million acres.
On the Net:
National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov