Escaped ember started LANL fire

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By Roger Snodgrass

A spokesperson for Los Alamos National Laboratory provided additional information about a fire that broke out Wednesday afternoon on laboratory property.

Kevin Roark of the LANL communications office said this morning that the fire was caused by an unanticipated failure of a piece of a scientific apparatus under development for the Nevada Test Site. He said a piece of equipment was under an evaluation using a gunpowder-like explosive.

“We were doing some performance testing on a very specialized high-speed valve,” he said. “For reasons that are still undetermined the valve failed and some hot gasses escaped and ignited some nearby grasses.”

He said the people on the scene were trained to put out spot fires and that they made a “valiant attempt” to do so.

“Somehow or other an ember got loose and got into the surrounding area.” Roark said. “It was picked up by the winds and the fire got away from them.

The Los Alamos Fire Department was called to the scene immediately and joined by some 40 firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, Santa Clara Pueblo and the laboratory’s emergency management division.

Two slurry drops were conducted as a precaution, Roark said.

By 10 p.m., the fire was fully contained. The burned area was estimated to be about 10 acres, mostly on the vertical side of Ancho Canyon in Technical Area 39, where most of the burns and detonations take place at the laboratory.

Steve Yanicek, of the New Mexico Environment Department, said he had reported to the Los Alamos Site Office and to his supervisors in Santa Fe, that a resident of Pajarito Acres had heard an explosion some time before the fire was reported.

Roark said it was unlikely that the report was related to the fire.

“Our model showed that sound was not expected to travel off site,” he said. “We didn’t have any activities for all of last week that we expected to have sound travel offsite.”

Roark said the experiment was conducted, despite the red flag conditions, which would have proscribed open burning or detonation, because this was not a high-explosive detonation or open air test.

“There was no expectation that the system would fail,” he said.

“Obviously, we’re going to do a full critique of the event and implement corrective actions as appropriate,” he added.

Monitor County Editor Carol A. Clark contributed to this story.