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Idaho Fire Threatens Nuke Facility

Updated 8:20 AM ET July 28, 2000

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - The nation's worst fire season in four years grew worse Friday as yet another of the nation's nuclear facilities was threatened and hundreds were evacuated. The 18,000-acre blaze near the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory began Thursday and was fanned by 28 mph wind gusts.

Some 1,800 employees were ordered out of three buildings at the sprawling eastern Idaho complex as a precaution, said Jason Bohne, a lab spokesman. There were no injuries.

No widespread damage has been reported at the 890-square-mile facility, but Bohne said a small fire "went into" a reactor test area before that section of the fire was contained. The fire affected only a grassy section of the fenced-in area and did not damage any buildings.

Ellen Doherty, a spokeswoman for INEEL, said the larger fire was "stable" but not contained late Thursday.

The blaze is the third to threaten a facility with nuclear material in as many months. Fire struck the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in May and a huge fire swept across the Hanford nuclear reservation in southeastern Washington last month.

Both raised concerns about the release of radioactive material, from rain washing contaminated soil into New Mexico's streams to airborne particles in Washington state.

Federal officials have said there has been no danger, though air samples showed an increased - but not harmful - concentration of plutonium in public areas outside the Hanford reservation. Idaho lab officials said tests were being performed.

There were also evacuations in California, where a fire has blackened 19,000 acres of the Sequoia National Forest, creeping up to several homes on the forest's borders early Friday. More than 100 residents were forced to evacuate the area 120 miles north of Los Angeles. No injuries have been reported.

"This fire has shown extreme behavior," Forest Service spokesman Tony Diffenbaugh said.

The fire season is the worst since 1996. More than 59,000 fires have burned 3 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Four years ago, the total was 3.1 million acres by this date.

For the first time since then, the fire center has called in Army soldiers for training and eventual posting on the fire lines. Elite hotshot firefighting crews, air tankers and helicopters are in big demand.

Firefighters, meanwhile, have made progress against two huge fires in Colorado and Montana.

In Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., a 40-mile fire line was keeping a 23,000-acre wildfire from spreading. The fire in the nation's largest archaeological preserve was 70 percent contained late Thursday, fire spokesman Bobby Kitchens said.

Park Superintendent Larry Wiese said the park could reopen next week. Its well-known attractions - Balcony House, Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree - have not been damaged.

Firefighters also were inching toward containing the Cave Gulch Fire, which has burned about 17,500 acres east of Helena in Montana's scenic Canyon Ferry Lake region. About 300 families have been forced to evacuate the area because of that blaze and one nearby.

The fires have also destroyed 36 buildings, including nine houses.

-- Rusty Hinges (RustyH@Da.House), July 28, 2000

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