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Thousands evacuated from Los Alamos--video extra and photos added

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Monitor Staff, Wire Reports

Thousands were evacuated from Los Alamos, leaving the town a virtual ghost town.

The 50,000-acre wildfire, which began Sunday, had destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos by early Monday and forced the closure of the lab while stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings.

"The hair on the back of your neck goes up," Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said of first seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. "I saw that plume and I thought, 'Oh my God here we go again.'"

Tucker said the current blaze — which grew Monday to roughly 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles — was the most active fire he had seen in his career. By midafternoon, it had jumped a highway and burned an acre of land on the outskirts of the lab's 36-square mile complex.

The fire scorched a section of what is known as the Tech Area, 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials. Lab officials said the fire was safely extinguished.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists from the lab were mobilized and monitoring air quality on Monday, but that the main concern was smoke.

Traffic on Trinity Drive, one of the main roads out of Los Alamos, was bumper-to-bumper Monday afternoon as residents followed orders to leave. Authorities said about 2,500 of the town's roughly 12,000 residents left under an earlier voluntary evacuation.

"We're just hoping for the best," Vivian Levy, a resident since the 1970s, said as she packed her car and her animals — again.

"Last time, I just walked out of my house and said goodbye, and that it was going to be OK," she said before breaking down in tears. "I'm doing the same thing this time. It's going to be OK. I'm prepared to say goodbye."

Sam Kendericks said he knew the blaze was going to be bad when he first saw the plume Sunday.

"I was going to the hardware store and I did a U-turn as soon as I saw the plume come over the mountain. I told my wife to start packing. We were here 10 years ago. We had 20 minutes last time. So this time we're ready," he said.

The fire has the potential to double or triple in size, Tucker said, and firefighters had no idea which direction the 60 mph-plus winds would take it.

"We are preparing for the fire to go in any direction," Tucker said.

On Monday afternoon, the flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed northern New Mexico lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The lab activated its emergency operations center overnight and cut natural gas to some areas overnight as a precaution.

 Los Alamos County officials issued a mandatory evacuation Monday afternoon and it was done in three phases.

Group 1: Western, Quemazon, Ponderosa; Group 2: North Community, Barranca Mesa, North Mesa; Group 3: East of Diamond and the remainder of the town site. White Rock is NOT being evacuated at this time. Residents in Los Alamos should NOT go to White Rock to stay in case it is later evacuated.

NM502 (Main Hill Rd) was closed into and out of Los Alamos as of 7:30 p.m.

Anyone wishing to enter Los Alamos needs to take SR 4 to the White Rock Truck Inspection station for screening. Only those individuals with an emergency-related reason to enter Los Alamos will be
allowed up the Truck Route and into Los Alamos.

At this time, the Truck Route continues to be one-lane east bound for
departing traffic - vehicles may not use the westbound lane to enter Los
Alamos. The incoming west bound lane is strictly reserved for Emergency
Vehicles to use. SR 4 is open to White Rock from NM502. Residents leaving
Los Alamos are strongly urged NOT to evacuate to White Rock, in case that
community must be evacuated later on.

Pajarito Rd is only open to LANL traffic.

Group 1, 2 and Royal Crest Trailer Park have all been notified to evacuate
at this point using Reverse 911.  The County is no longer using Rendija
Canyon for evacuation for Barranca Mesa and North Mesa.  Those vehicles are
now using Diamond Drive to either Trinity Drive (NM502) or proceeding across
the Los Alamos Canyon bridge to take the Truck Route. Residents are being
encouraged to take the Truck Route rather than Trinity Drive, which is
experiencing a higher volume of traffic.

1610 AM continues to be a resource for information from the County, or,
www.losalamosnm.us. However, the County’s webpage may be experiencing lags
in response time due to the large volume of web traffic.

The only shelter open at this time is the shelter previously announced at
the Santa Claran Resort Center. Others open include Pojoaque Valley High School and Cities of Gold Casino.

Residents who have friends and family in the area are asked to relocate to stay with them in order to keep shelter space available for those who most need it.

The County is coordinating with regional resources to open more shelters.
 
Residents are asked to seek information about the size of the fire or other general fire updates on the USFS webpage rather than calling the County. 

Links to public information about the Las Conchas fire can be found on the News page at www.losalamosnm.us and stay tuned to lamonitor.com.

Associated Press contributed to this report.
 

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