Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Surrounded by flames, nuclear labs are headed for wildfire in the future

LOS ALAMOS NM ( Associated Press) — Public schools were closed and evacuation bags packed as a stubborn wildfire this week within a few miles of the city of Los Alamos and its fellow U.S. National Security Laboratory — Where the assessment of the dangers of apocalypse is a feature and wildfire. is a confusing equation.

Light winds on Friday allowed the most intense airstrikes this week on the largest US wildfire burning in the east, along with flames west of Santa Fe, as well as south of Taos.

“We had all kinds of aviation today,” said Todd Abel, chief of firefighting operations at the Santa Fe National Forest briefing on Friday evening. “We haven’t had that opportunity in a long time.”

In Southern California, where fires have engulfed at least 20 homes south of Los Angeles in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel, Orange County emergency officials on Friday increased the mandatory evacuation zone from 900 residences to 131.

Among those alerted to evacuation preparations west of Santa Fe included scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is harnessing supercomputers into the future of wildfires in the US West, where climate change and a permanent drought frequency and increasing the intensity. Forest and meadow fires.

Research and partnerships could eventually yield credible predictions that shape the way vast tracks of national forests are thinned — or selectively burned — to stave off devastating heated conflicts that quickly decimated cities. can dehydrate the soil and change ecosystems forever.

“It’s really something that we’re really trying to find ways to tackle fires in the future,” said Rod Lynn, a senior laboratory scientist who leads efforts to build a supercomputing device that can be specific. Predicts the outcome of the fire by terrain and conditions.

High stakes in research are on prime display during the raging start of the spring wildfire season, including a blaze that accelerated toward Los Alamos National Laboratory, prompting preparations for a possible evacuation.

The laboratory arose out of World War II efforts to design nuclear weapons in Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project. It now conducts a range of national security work and research in diverse areas of efforts to limit global threats from renewable energy, nuclear fusion, space exploration, supercomputing and disease to cyberattacks. The laboratory is one of two US sites set to manufacture plutonium cores for use in nuclear weapons.

With about 1,000 firefighters battling the fire, laboratory officials say critical infrastructure is well protected from the fire, which covers 67 square miles (175 square kilometers).

Yet scientists are ready.

“We have our bags packed, the cars full, the kids home from school — it’s a crazy day,” said the father of two and laboratory hydrologist who studies wildfire ecology.

Wildfires reaching Los Alamos National Laboratory slightly increase the risk of disbursement of chemical wastes and radionuclides such as plutonium through the air or carried ashes by runoff after a fire.

Mike McNaughton, an environmental health physicist from Los Alamos, acknowledges that chemical and radiological waste was clearly handled incorrectly in the laboratory’s early years.

“The people had a war to win, and they weren’t careful,” McNaughton said. “Emissions now are much lower than historical emissions.”

A network of about 25 air monitors surround the facility to ensure that no hazardous contaminants leave the laboratory unnoticed, says team leader Dave Fuehne of the Laboratory for Air Emissions Measurements. Additional high-volume monitors were deployed after a fire broke out in April.

Jim Jones, manager of the lab’s Wildland Fire Mitigation Project, said trees and underbrush have been manually removed on campus during the past four years – 3,500 tons (3,175 metric tons).

“We don’t have any irritation,” Jones said. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Jay Coglan, director of environmental group Nuclear Watch New Mexico, wants a more thorough assessment of the lab’s current fire risks and questions whether plutonium pit production is justified.

This year’s Spring Blaze has also destroyed houses on California hilltops and chewed through more than 422 square miles (1,100 square kilometers) of tinder-dry northeastern New Mexico. In Colorado, officials said one person was killed in a fire that engulfed eight mobile homes in Colorado Springs on Friday.

The massive fire in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountain range is the largest burning in the US, destroying at least 262 homes and displacing thousands of residents.

About 2,000 firefighters are now assigned to that fire along a 501-mile (806-kilometer) circumference—a distance that would extend from San Diego to San Francisco.

Achley says extreme weather conditions are changing the trajectories of many fires.

“Wildfires in the 70s, 80s, 90s and even 2000s are probably going to behave differently from wildfires in 2020,” he said.

Achley says he is contributing to research aimed at better understanding and preventing the most devastating wildfires, which leap through the upper crowns of mature pine trees. He says climate change is an invariable factor.

“It is magnifying the window that is burning by the wildfire. … wildfire season is year-round,” Achley said. “And it’s happening not only in the United States, but in Australia and Indonesia and around the world.”

He is not alone in suggesting that the answer may be more frequent fires of low intensity that are deliberately set off to mimic the cycle of burning and regeneration that occurred every two to six years in New Mexico before the arrival of Europeans. may be in.

“What we’re trying to do in Los Alamos is figure out how do you apply scheduled fires safely … given that it’s very hard with climate change,” he said.

Instances of intentionally determined burns that escaped control include the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire that swept through residential areas of Los Alamos and 12 square miles of laboratory — more than one-quarter of the campus. The fire destroyed more than 230 homes and 45 structures in the lab. In 2011, a large and fast-moving fire burned down the sides of the laboratory.

Achley said the forests of the West can be thought of and measured as a vast reserve that stores carbon and could help prevent climate change – if extreme fires can be limited.

Land managers say vast US national forests cannot be thinned by hand and machine alone.

Physicist Lin says wildfire modeling software is being shared with land managers from the US Forest Service, as well as the Geological Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, to help predict and control scheduled fires. It may or may not be easy to do.

“We do not advocate blindly using any of these models,” he said. “We’re in that essential stage of building those relationships with land managers and helping them build their model as well.”


Nation World News Desk
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