(Reuters) - A raging wildfire sparked mini-blazes within one of the nation's top nuclear weapons production complexes on Wednesday even as firefighters for the first time gained control of a small edge of the fire.
The so-called Las Conchas Fire, which continues to throw small fires onto Los Alamos National Laboratory, has grown to nearly 70,000 acres, fire information officer Linda Kearns said.
But about three percent of the fire's perimeter was finally contained, the first time firefighters were able to make headway on the blaze that had burned out of control since Sunday.
"There are spots on lab property but they're putting them out pretty much right away," Kearns said.
A buried natural gas pipeline running near the northern edge of the fire has been turned off as a precaution, incident fire commander Joe Reinarz said. Los Alamos laboratory officials have been shutting down gas lines since the fire began to encroach on lab property earlier this week.
Both the town of Los Alamos, home to about 10,000 residents, and the laboratory, with a work force of about 12,000, were evacuated on Monday. The lab is scheduled to be shut down at least through Thursday.
Situated on a hilltop 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, the lab property covers 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings, none of which have yet burned.
Established during World War Two as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, the complex remains one of the leading nuclear arms manufacturing facilities in the United States.
At a community meeting late on Tuesday, hundreds of evacuees gathered in a local gymnasium to hear updates and voice concern about the repercussions of the blaze.
Mai Ting, a doctor living in nearby Pojoaque, said she was frustrated by the lack of information on how to stay safe.
"I'm not a fearmonger, but there's a reason this story is on the national and world news. It's because of the nuclear lab. I don't trust this fire," she said.
She added that she thought people staying near the fire should be consuming lots of potassium iodide and seaweed to counteract the potential effects of radiation.
"What do I tell my children and grandchildren?" she said. "Well, they've left. I didn't want them around here."
The Los Alamos complex contains three metric tons of highly radioactive weapons-grade plutonium, stored in concrete and steel vaults in the basement floor of a building near the center of the complex, with an air-containment system surrounding it, according to John Witham, a spokesman for the anti-nuclear watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico.
Lab officials have said the storage structures were fire safe. Lab officials also called in teams late on Monday to monitor air quality, with high-volume air samplers ready to deploy.
Kearns said firefighters from Wyoming, Texas, Colorado, Utah and California had been brought in to help fight the blaze, which began Sunday from what authorities believe was a tree falling on a power line.
The fire grew by 10,000 acres on Tuesday, now scorching 69,555 acres of Santa Fe National Forest. Hot temperatures and gusts of up to 40 miles per hour were expected for Wednesday.
Reinarz said firefighting efforts would now be separated into two zones - a Northeast and a Southwest section - each with its own command section.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)
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