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New Mexico fires encroach on nuclear facility

New Mexico fires entered the property of a nuclear facility in Los Alamos, Monday.

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New Mexico fires: Wind battered flags located at a fire station at Diamond and Range roads in Los Alamos, N.M., flap in the breeze, Monday. A fast-moving wildfire has broken out in New Mexico and forced officials at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to close the site as residents nearby evacuate their homes.

Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/The Albuquerque Journal/AP

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A raging wildfire Monday briefly entered the property of the preeminent U.S. nuclear facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory, a vast complex that houses research laboratories and a plutonium facility.

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the town of Los Alamos, which has a population of about 12,000. The speed at which the fire has grown surprised fire officials.

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The laboratory, which ensures the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, is a national security research facility located in the Jemez mountains of northern New Mexico.

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It was set up in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb and still maintains the nation's largest nuclear weapons arsenal.

Firefighters were able to douse flames on a one-acre ''spot fire'' just inside the southwestern boundary of the lab site, about 25 miles outside Santa Fe, authorities said.

Buildings still have not been touched by flames, and authorities said there was little threat to sensitive areas of the 28,000-acre complex.

The laboratory's plutonium facility is on the northeast side of the complex, while the fire seems to be moving south and east, said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.

``The facility is very well protected from any kind of wild land fire threat,'' said Roark. He said the facility survived a May 2000 wildfire that claimed some lab buildings and did more than $1 billion in damage.

Explosive materials on the laboratory's grounds are stored safely in underground bunkers made of concrete and steel, as well as earthen berms, Roark said.

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``This fire is going to be with us for a while. It has the potential to double and triple in size,'' Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker said.

Nuclear watchdog groups are keeping a close eye on the fire, said Jay Coughlin, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.