Fire no longer threatens important nuclear facilities in Idaho

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BOISE, Idaho – The nation’s primary nuclear research facility plans to return to regular operations on Thursday after a change in wind direction after moving a wildfire away from the extensive Idaho plant.

The fire no longer poses a threat to the Idaho National Laboratory’s major research facilities, laboratory officials said Wednesday evening.

The lightning fire at the Idaho National Laboratory is one of several in the entire U.S. West.

Before the wind changed, the Idaho fire came close to several laboratory facilities, including one that tests highly radioactive materials and another that holds a nuclear reactor, spokeswoman Kerry Martin said. She said she did not know how close the flames came to these buildings.

The lab has several security measures in place for forest fires that often ignite in Idaho’s southeastern desert area, including clearing the ground around each building and stationing several specially trained firefighters around the site, which is almost as large as Rhode Island.

“It’s not our first rodeo,” Martin said. “We have fire stations, a lot of fire equipment, we have firefighters trained and equipment to remove barriers.”

The wildfire that was lit on Monday is estimated to be about 456 square kilometers. Unneeded laboratory staff were evacuated. Laboratory officials said the fire was estimated to be contained by 60% Wednesday evening.

The nuclear research site includes reactors and research materials as well as facilities for processing high-level radioactive waste and other radioactive waste.

Forest fires are not uncommon in the vast nuclear facilities scattered across the dry west. A fire burned more than 161 square kilometres last weekend near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, where most of the country’s nuclear plutonium was produced. This fire did not threaten any buildings.

Timothy Judson, director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service Watchdog Group in Takoma Park, Maryland, said there was concern that fires near nuclear power plants in California and Colorado could release radioactive material.

Meanwhile, rain in a wooded Arizona city helped firefighters fight a wildfire that has been raging for days in a scenic mountain pass, but has increased the risk of flooding, officials said.

Firefighters worked Wednesday to bolster containment lines, directly attacking the flame and extinguishing flames in the vicinity, fire information commissioner Steve Kliest said. The fire has burned nearly 8 square kilometers (3 square miles) since Sunday.

“You won’t see any increase in acreage in the future,” said Fire Department Information Officer Steve Kliest. “If you did, it would be really modest.”

Forecasters warned of possible flooding in Flagstaff neighborhoods with aging drainage systems below the fire. Thunderstorms bypassed the fire earlier on Wednesday, but more are predicted on Thursday – providing an opportunity to soak the fire-stitched areas of the Coconino National Forest around Flagstaff, a popular mountain excursion in the largest Ponderosa pine forest in the US.

Warm, drier weather is expected later in the week.

The area had no significant humidity for weeks and had no previous forest fires. This means that the dense forest with many pine needles and grass burns more intensely and a hard clay surface is formed that quickly loses water.

A team that will analyze the soil and look for ways to stabilize it should arrive on Thursday.

“It’s not an easy task, but we will do our best,” said Laura Jo West, supervisor of the Coconino National Forest, at a community meeting on Tuesday. “I can’t guarantee any results.”

The residents who were ordered this week to evacuate more than two dozen houses were allowed to return.

Ladd Vagen, his wife and two daughters lived in a hotel and went home on Wednesday to find everything exactly as it was, with an added smell of smoke.

Nevertheless, the family realized that they might have to flee again.

“I don’t think we’ll be unloading our cars,” Vagen said. “We can minimally unload and better organize what we’re going to take when we get back to Go status.”

Sharan Winnicki and her husband returned to their home after 44 years and found concrete barriers used to divert water in the neighborhood, a little smoke, reminding that the rebuilding project they started months ago is not complete. She also planned to do most of what she did with packaged documents, art, pictures and “things that we know we need to start over…would remind us of home,” she said.

“It’s exciting and I’m just so grateful for the team of people who have been here, it’s really incredible,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be back soon.”

Arizona has declared an emergency and released the means to fight the fire. The cost of fighting the fire so far is $2.1 million,” said Operations Commander Rich Nieto.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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