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CNN Today

Wildfires Leave Path of Devastation in Los Alamos

Aired May 11, 2000 - 2:28 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Energy Secretary Bill Richardson telling us the government is carrying out radiological tests around the Los Alamos National Weapons Laboratory, but Secretary Richardson says, the massive New Mexico forest fire does not pose a threat to the lab's nuclear stockpile. The fire has damaged up to 400 homes in Los Alamos, about 100 of which were totally destroyed overnight.

We have more from the scene now from CNN's Mark Bernheimer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK BERNHEIMER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By all accounts, it has become the worst-case scenario for a fire that had spared property for nearly a week. Vicious winds suddenly steered the blaze straight into the town of Los Alamos overnight, and home after home burned to the ground.

Firefighters simply couldn't compete with the winds, but they did manage a few water drops when conditions allowed.

While the fire was merciless on property, it apparently found no people in its path. All 11,000 residents of Los Alamos, as well as thousands in outlying towns, had been calmly evacuated hours before the flames arrived.

Some of the evacuees, like this family, had fled Los Alamos for the town of White Rock, only to be evacuated a second time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm concerned that we may lose our house. I didn't take anything out of it at all, just a couple days' worth of clothes. It didn't think it was going to be anything serious.

BERNHEIMER: Meantime, the fire hop scotched through the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb. But officials insisted that all dangerous materials, including plutonium stockpiles, were safely locked in fireproof bunkers.

Jim Hauger (ph) is an evacuee from Los Alamos who works at the laboratory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those buildings have, you know, they are solid concrete. I built bunker concrete radio stations in Vietnam, and I mean, these things are a lot, lot more sturdier than what we were doing. BERNHEIMER: But that may be smaller consolation to those who have already lost everything, and their ranks are sure to grow, along with the fire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERNHEIMER: And you can probably see just how windy it is here at Los Alamos. That is exactly what firefighters were afraid of. When all of this is all over, there are bound to be plenty of questions about the way it started, as a prescribed burn that went wildly out of control.

Mark Bernheimer, CNN, reporting live from Los Alamos, New Mexico -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, thanks, Mark.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And as you just saw, the fires in and around Los Alamos have reduced dozens of homes to smoldering rubble.

Reporter Jack Harper of CNN affiliate WCVB went into some of the neighborhoods decimated by fire and here that part of the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JACK HARPER, WCVB REPORTER (voice-over): Ridgeway Road, Los Alamos, devastated, and this morning the winds were back, driving again, rekindling fires they thought were out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The problem is, just look around you, the homes here are real nice homes, and they are built amongst the trees, and when you do that you have a problem. It just gets in the crowns and runs, and it just hits everything in its wake.

HARPER (on camera): This neighborhood among the hardest hits, expensive homes here, three in a row, one, two, three, wiped out. The fire, they say, came though here in less than two hours and the fire departments could only watch it and try to stop it down at the other end of the street.

(voice-over): The Wind won't quit, which means firefighters can't. Thousands of residents are gone, driven out to shelters in neighboring towns. And the worst thing for many will be coming home, coming home to nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically what we are going is we are hitting structures and running. Putting them out as fast as we can and moving on to the next.

HARPER: Problem is there always seems to be a next one, another one, already more than 100 homes have been destroyed, gone, burned to the ground, at least a dozen of them went down this morning.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Again, Jack Harper reporting from WCVB. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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