Wildfire burns near Hanford nuclear site

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Wildfire forces evacuation near Washington nuclear site June 29, 2000 Web posted at: 3:14 AM EDT (0714 GMT)

RICHLAND, Washington (AP) -- A fast-moving wildfire roared out of control across the Hanford nuclear reservation late Wednesday, burning homes, closing highways and briefly threatening a building holding radioactive waste. Thousands of residents were urged to evacuate.

The fire doubled in size in just a few hours, growing to 100,000 acres and jumping across the Yakima River west of this southeastern Washington city. There were no reports of injuries.

At least 25 homes were burned near Benton City, about 10 miles west of Richland, said Dale Brunson of Benton County Emergency Services. Some 7,000 residents in the area were asked to leave their homes.

"I can see the smoke -- it's big," said Joanne Burnett, who was preparing to evacuate. "It's a mile from here."

The Red Cross set up emergency shelters at Richland High School and Southridge High School in nearby Kennewick to accept evacuees.

The fire has burned sagebrush that makes up most of the 560-square-mile reservation since it was sparked by a car wreck Tuesday. Several highways were closed because of flames and smoke while temperatures in the area hit 100 degrees Wednesday.

Some 300 firefighters were battling flames along Washington 240, the highway that splits the reservation. The state ordered 100 additional firefighters and 40 engines from other counties to help.

Earlier Wednesday, the flames crossed Washington 240 in three places, pushing into the Hanford area where waste is stored from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. That prompted an emergency declaration from the Energy Department until winds pushed the flames away.

The threatened building was an analytical laboratory where nuclear and hazardous waste samples are stored, said Michael Minette of the Hanford Joint Information Center.

Energy Department officials said there were no known waste releases.

Earlier Wednesday, smoke spread across the area leaving some workers complaining of respiratory problems and sending two to a local hospital for treatment, said Michael Turner, spokesman for Fluor Hanford, a reservation contractor. About 1,700 Hanford workers were either sent home Wednesday or told not to report for their evening shifts.

About 65 people formed a skeleton crew in the area Wednesday night, Minette said.

Hanford was established as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Today, its mission is cleaning up radioactive and hazardous waste created during 40 years of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

An anti-nuclear group warned that the fire could burn radioactive soils and spew contaminated particles into the air.

"We urge state officials to independently monitor to protect the public and firefighters from the hazards of airborne radioactive contaminated particles," said Gerald Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest.

Earlier this month, the federal government warned that radioactive-contaminated soil from the Los Alamos National Laboratory could flush into the Rio Grande River after a fire raced through the New Mexico site.

The fire season across the country is the worst since 1996, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. More than 48,000 fires have burned 1.3 million acres.

President Clinton and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson have offered any federal assistance needed in fighting the Hanford blaze, said Keith Klein, manager of the Hanford site.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also agreed to send airplanes and helicopters to drop fire retardant on the flames, Minette said. Those flights will begin Thursday.

-- Deb M. (vmcclell@columbus.rr.com), June 29, 2000

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