While officials remained tight-lipped as to exactly when the five-day-old evacuation order will be lifted, the first signal that the day is coming soon took place Saturday.
Roughly 200 employees of the Los Alamos National Laboratory returned to work in preparation for its eventual reopening. On Friday, lab officials had lifted a state of emergency, allowing lab workers to move into operational recovery mode. About 100 county employees also returned to work on Friday.
The change in status will also allow firefighting resources previously assigned to the lab to be allocated to other areas.
“We’ve now assessed the risk at the lab to be lower, and so we’re able to change the status based on that assessment,” said LANL Director Charles McMillan. “What this means for us at the laboratory is that we’ve moved our staff from focusing on the emergency to now being focused on the recovery.”
Meanwhile, firefighters have turned their attention to the fire’s northeast edge, as an incident command post was moved from Jemez Springs, on the western edge of the fire, to Española. A third Type I incident team, used for the worst fires, is expected to join the two already fighting the blaze today.
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have asked federal officials for additional help for Native American communities affected by the fire. The lawmakers want FEMA’s fire management assistance declaration to be expanded to tribes and other counties affected, including Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed in Santa Clara Canyon, where crews were conducting burnouts Saturday to protect cultural and other resources.
The lab employees who have returned to work have begun addressing general maintenance problems – the lab’s air-filtration systems may have been clogged by the smoke, for example – as well as restarting computer systems that were shut down when the state of emergency was declared.
All this preparation, said McMillan, is “so when the time comes to bring everyone back into the building, they can go right back to work.”
While the lab and Los Alamos appeared to be out of immediate danger Saturday, the overall outlook for the Las Conchas Fire appeared grim for the surrounding areas.
Overnight, roughly 9,000 additional acres burned as the largest recorded fire in state history grew to 113,734 acres on Saturday, with only 6 percent containment. But fire lines at the Pajarito Ski Area are holding, and the perimeter of the lab is secure.
Crews have begun reinforcing lines in the Los Alamos Canyon, where the fire was still burning, Los Alamos fire chief Doug Tucker said.
Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy said Saturday that a plan by the county is being finished to gradually bring the town’s population of about 12,000 back into town once the evacuation order is lifted.
But Torpy urged everyone who returns home to stay put once they arrive.
“Somebody is going to be first getting home,” Torpy said. “Stay there until the second and third people get home.”
The problem, Torpy said, is that N.M. 502 into Los Alamos “goes from one lane to two lanes back to one lane.”
“You don’t have to be an engineer to know that that’s not conducive to a steady flow of traffic,” Torpy said. “So we’re going to need your cooperation to make this work.”
Torpy then added that, even when the evacuation order is lifted, people with respiratory conditions should consult their doctors before returning to the area, due to continuing air-quality problems.
In a separate incident Saturday, firefighters were called to extinguish a small fire at the lab caused by a squirrel.
Lab representative Toni Chiri said a squirrel got into an electrical transformer, causing it to blow out. The ensuing fire burned about an acre but was put out, he said.
Elsewhere in northern New Mexico, monsoon rains appeared to be beginning. The moisture has had a positive effect on the Pacheco Fire, which has charred more than 10,000 acres in the mountains above Santa Fe but has spread minimally in the last few days and is now 55 percent contained.
Farther north, however, thunderstorms and accompanying lightning started small fires near Red River and Tres Piedras. Both burns were reported out or under control Saturday afternoon.