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Under threat of flames, the nuclear laboratory is looking to the future of forest fires

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Under threat of flames, the nuclear laboratory is looking to the future of forest fires

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico (AP) – Public schools have been closed and evacuation bags packed this week when a stubborn forest fire has crept in …

LOS ALAMOS NM (AP) – Public schools have been closed and evacuation bags packed this week when a persistent forest fire broke out a few miles from the city of Los Alamas and its accompanying U.S. National Security Laboratory – where apocalyptic threat assessment is a specialty and fire in the wild it is a magical equation.

Light winds on Friday allowed for the most intense airstrike this week on those flames west of Santa Fe, as well as the largest forest fire in the U.S. further east, south of Taos.

“Today we had all kinds of aviation,” Fire Chief Todd Abel said at a briefing at the Santa Fe National Forest Friday night. “We haven’t had that opportunity in a long time.”

In Southern California, where a fire destroyed at least 20 homes south of Los Angeles in the Laguna Nigel coastal community, Orange County emergency workers reduced the mandatory evacuation zone on Friday from 900 to 131.

Among the people left on the alert to prepare for an evacuation west of Santa Fe were scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory who use supercomputers to look into the future of wildfires in the western United States, where climate change and prolonged drought are increasing the frequency and intensity of fires. forest and meadow fires.

Research and partnerships can ultimately provide robust predictions that will shape how vast tracks of national forests are thinning – or selectively burning – to prevent catastrophically hot fires that can quickly engulf cities, sterilize soil and permanently alter ecosystems.

“In fact, this is what we’re really trying to use to look for ways to fight fires in the future,” said Rod Lynn, a senior lab scientist who is directing efforts to create a supercomputer tool that predicts fires in specific cases. terrain and conditions.

High rates in the study are evident in the early spring season of forest fires, which includes flames that are steadily approaching the Los Alamos National Laboratory, causing preparations for a potential evacuation.

The lab was created as a result of World War II efforts to develop nuclear weapons in Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project. She is currently conducting a range of work and research on national security in various areas of renewable energy, nuclear fusion, space exploration, supercomputers and efforts to limit global threats from disease to cyber attacks. The lab is one of two U.S. facilities preparing to produce plutonium nuclei for use in nuclear weapons.

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

However, scientists are ready.

“We have packed bags, loaded cars, children coming home from school – it’s a crazy day,” said Adam Atchley, a father of two and a laboratory hydrologist who studies the ecology of forest fires.

Fires reaching the Los Alamos National Laboratory increase the risk, however, slightly of releasing chemical wastes and radionuclides such as plutonium into the air or into the ash carried away by the effluent after a fire.

Mike McNaughton, an environmental physicist from Los Alamos, admits that in the early years of the laboratory, chemical and radiological wastes were treated rudely.

“People needed to win the war, and they weren’t careful,” McNotan said. “Emissions are now very, very small compared to historical emissions.”

Dave Fune, head of the laboratory for measuring emissions into the air, says a network of about 25 air monitors surrounds the facility to ensure that hazardous contaminants do not leave the laboratory unnoticed. Additional high-volume monitors were deployed when the fire broke out in April.

Trees and shrubs on campus have been removed manually – 3,500 tons (3,175 metric tons) over the past four years, said Jim Jones, manager of a wildlife lab project.

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

Jay Coglan, director of the environmental group Nuclear Watch New Mexico, wants a more thorough assessment of the current risks of fires in the laboratory and wonders about the feasibility of producing plutonium quarries.

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

The Great Fire in the Sangre de Cristo Range in New Mexico is the largest fire in the U.S., at least 262 homes have been destroyed and thousands of residents have been relocated.

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

Atchley says extreme weather conditions are changing the trajectory of many fires.

“The fires of the 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s are likely to behave differently than the forest fires of 2020,” he said.

Atchley says he is contributing to research aimed at better understanding and preventing the most devastating forest fires, overheated flames jumping through the upper crowns of mature pines. He says climate change is a flawless factor.

“It increases the fire window. … Forest fire season all year round, ”Attlee said. “And it’s happening not only in the United States, but also in Australia, Indonesia and around the world.”

He is not alone in suggesting that the answer may be more frequent fires of lesser intensity, which deliberately mimic the cycle of combustion and regeneration that may have occurred every two to six years in New Mexico before the arrival of Europeans.

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

Examples of deliberately prescribed burns that spiraled out of control include a fire in the Sera Grande in 2000 that engulfed residential areas of Los Alamos and 12 square miles of the lab – more than a quarter of the campus. The fire destroyed more than 230 homes and 45 buildings in the laboratory. In 2011, a large and rapid fire burned the outskirts of the laboratory.

Atchley said the West’s forests could be viewed and measured as one giant reserve that stores carbon and can help contain climate change – if extreme fires can be contained.

Land managers say that the vast national forests of the United States can not be thinned only by hand and machine.

Lynn, a physicist, says forest fire simulation software is being unveiled in conjunction with U.S. Forest Service executives as well as the Geological Survey and the Fisheries and Wildlife Service for preliminary testing to see if prescribed fires can be more easily predicted and monitored.

“We don’t encourage anyone to use any of these models blindly,” he said. “We are in an important phase of building these relationships with land managers and helping them to start making it their model as well.”

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