Ancho Fire prompts 'significant' changes

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By Roger Snodgrass

ESPA'OLA – Analysis of a 17-acre fire near a weapons test facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory has led to some changes to prevent recurrence.

“They are significant,” said Jay Dallman, who heads the division in charge of detonation testing at the laboratory. “We’ve learned from this issue that we had and we’re going to be making more changes.”

Among the changes, he said, was that future tests during “extreme” or “red flag” conditions must be specifically approved at a higher management level and the Los Alamos County Fire Department must be on site. Also, an engineering study will review the containment-confinement systems to develop additional suitability standards.

Dallman told a meeting of the Community Radiation Monitoring Group (CRMG) at Northern New Mexico College Wednesday that the experiment on June 11 involved the Large-Bore Power Gun Assembly, located in the south-central area of the laboratory, not far from White Rock.

The experiment failed because a fast-closing valve failed to shut properly. Hot gases unexpectedly sprayed from the test equipment and ignited some grasses several feet away outside the test shelter. Under windy conditions, the incipient wildfire quickly exceeded the fire-fighting capability of the test employees.

By coincidence, Dallman had been speaking to the same CRMG on the morning of the fire about policies and practices related to open-air tests. At one point he noted that a key fire safety features was that open-air detonations were never performed during “red-flag days.”

“LANL does not conduct open-air operations during adverse weather conditions, such as high winds or a “red flag” designation,” the laboratory stated in an unclassified response to the Ancho Canyon fire.

Dallman noted during his presentation Wednesday that this was a principal that had not changed, but he said the June 11 test had occurred during “red flag” conditions because a test conducted inside the vessel of the gun assembly was technically considered to be contained.

Dallman said the wind speeds at the time of the fire, according to what he saw on the computer, were averaging between 20 and 25 miles an hour, declining by sunset to less than 5 mph.

The fire was reported at about 3 p.m. on June 11, according to a laboratory summary. About 40 firefighters from the Los Alamos Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Park Service, and Santa Clara Pueblo, as well as the laboratory responded to the blaze.

Two air tankers made drops of fire retardant. The fire was considered fully contained by 10 p.m. but was monitored overnight, during which time additional hot spots were extinguished.

Mike McNaughton reported that air monitoring analysis after the fire indicated “No hazardous concentrations at any of the locations.”

Air quality measurements came from the standard AIRNET air quality network, as well as two high-volume samplers that were quickly moved into the vicinity of the fire.

Resuspended concentrations of uranium-234 were detected in the aftermath, but in amounts considered typical for naturally occurring uranium during windy weather.

Bottom line was, “There were no adverse health effects on workers or members of the public” from airborne contaminants, the laboratory document concluded.

About 30 people attended the meeting, including more than a dozen officials from the laboratory and a contingent from the New Mexico Environment Department,

Public documents are available with more information on the causes and responses to the fire, and a post-fire analysis under “Ancho Fire Reports” is on the webpage, http://www.lanl.gov/emergency/fire.

A recording of the CMRG meeting will be available on the web at http://www.culturalenergy.org/.