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As fire looms, lab peers into blazes’ future

by MORGAN LEE The Associated Press | May 14, 2022 at 4:30 a.m.
Firefighters and residents stand on a fire road where the Coastal Fire jumped and burned several homes Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Laguna Niguel, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Public schools were closed and evacuation bags packed this week as a wildfire crept within a few miles of the city of Los Alamos and its companion U.S. national security lab -- where assessing apocalyptic threats is a specialty and wildland fire is a beguiling equation.

People preparing to evacuate included a team of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory who are tapping supercomputers to peer into the future of wildfires in the American West, where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fire.

"This actually is something that we're really trying to leverage to look for ways to deal with fire in the future," said Rod Linn, a senior lab scientist who leads efforts to create a supercomputing tool that predicts the outcome of fires in specific terrain and conditions.

The high stakes in the research are on prominent display during the furious start of spring wildfire season, which includes a blaze that has inched steadily toward Los Alamos National Laboratory, triggering preparations for a potential evacuation.

Laboratory officials say critical infrastructure is well safeguarded from the fire, which spans 67 square miles.

Wildfires that reach the Los Alamos National Laboratory increase the risk, however slightly, of disbursing chemical waste and radionuclides such as plutonium through the air or in the ashes carried away by runoff after a fire.

This year's spring blazes also have destroyed mansions on a California hilltop and chewed through more than 422 square miles of tinder-dry northeastern New Mexico. In Colorado, authorities said Friday 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 burning in the U.S., with at least 170 homes destroyed and thousands of residents displaced as it marched Friday through thick ponderosa pine forests.

  photo  This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows the active fire lines of the Hermits Peak wildfire, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. Wildfire in the West is on a furious pace early this year. Wind-driven flames tearing through vegetation that is extraordinarily dry from years-long drought exacerbated by climate change has made even small blazes a threat to life and property. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)
 
 
  photo  A plane drops fire retardant onto the Coastal Fire Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Laguna Niguel, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
 
 
  photo  A storefront window announces a weeklong work hiatus on Thursday, May 12, 2022, as residents of Los Alamos, N.M., prepared to possibly flee a wildfire as it crept within a few miles of the city and companion national security laboratory. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
 
 
  photo  A haze of wildfire smoke hangs over the Upper Rio Grande valley behind the mesa-top city of Los Alamos, N.M., on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Public schools and many businesses were closed as a wildfire crept closer to the city and companion national security laboratory. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
 
 
  photo  Families flocked to a public park in downtown Los Alamos, N.M., on Thursday, May 12, 2022, during a weeklong public school closure because of nearby wildfire. The blaze crept has been creeping closer to the mesa-top city and companion Los Alamos National Laboratory that analyzes global threats of disease, warfare and natural disasters. Scientists at Los Alamos are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
 
 
  photo  Teenage boys wait for a public bus after a pickup game of soccer in Los Alamos, N.M., on Thursday, May 12, 2022, during a weeklong public school closure because of nearby wildfire. The blaze has been creeping closer to the mesa-top city and companion Los Alamos National Laboratory that analyzes global threats of disease, warfare and natural disasters. Scientists at Los Alamos are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
 
 
  photo  A haze of wildfire smoke hangs over the Upper Rio Grande valley and the mesa-top city of Los Alamos, N.M., on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Public schools and many businesses were closed as a wildfire crept closer to the city and companion national security laboratory. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
 
 
  photo  The Cerro Pelado Fire, seen Friday, May 6, 2022, from Cochiti, N.M, burns in the Jemez Mountains. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)
 
 
  photo  A storefront window announces a work hiatus on Thursday, May 12, 2022, as residents of Los Alamos, N.M., prepared to possibly flee a wildfire as it crept within a few miles of the city and companion national security laboratory. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are using supercomputers and ingenuity to improve wildfire forecasting and forest management amid drought and climate change in the American West. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
 
 

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