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Sunday Morning News

New Mexico Wildfires Are Far From Being Under Control

Aired May 14, 2000 - 8:06 a.m. ET

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

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Turning now to the wildfires in New Mexico, authorities are warning the danger from the still growing Los Alamos wildfire is not over but victims of the firestorm may soon get help. President Clinton has declared 12 counties a disaster area, making federal funds available to people affected by those fires.

CNN's Charles Zewe joining us live from Los Alamos with the very latest.

Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES ZEWE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, here in Los Alamos, the fires have continued overnight, have consumed another 41 -- 4,000 acres, bringing to 41,000 the total number of acres already consumed by this fire. Meanwhile, officials are saying it's a long way from being under control.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZEWE (voice-over): Cool temperatures and light winds slowed but did little to stop raging wildfires pushing relentlessly through the mountains near Los Alamos. Thirty-six thousand acres has been turned into a scorched no man's land.

JIM PAXON, U.S. FOREST SERVICE: We just simply don't have enough people power and machines and aircraft to just stop it right now. This fire is going to burn for weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FIREFIGHTER: We've got a major, major flare-up going. Do you see it?

ZEWE: A thousand firefighters are battling the blaze, which has fanned out in three directions, tamping down hot spots, worried the blaze might double back on Los Alamos, where 260 homes were damaged or destroyed.

RICHARD GARCIA, LOS ALAMOS FIREFIGHTER: With the winds it's just always very unpredictable. So we've got to anticipate anything to happen at any time.

ZEWE: Repair crews are rebuilding utilities in blackened neighborhoods. Officials say evacuated residents won't be allowed back into their homes until there's no fire danger. CHIEF RICH MELTON, LOS ALAMOS POLICE DEPARTMENT: We're not going to begin to move people back in until we have that assurance and I will just tell you, I'm sure we're going to err on the side of caution.

ZEWE: Residents are scheduled to be bussed through charred subdivisions for their first look at what's left. At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials say the nuclear lab appears to be out of danger, although several minor buildings were scorched. Monitors have picked up a minuscule increase in radiation but experts say it's the result of a million trees burning nearby.

LEE MCATEE, LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORIES: We are seeing very, very small increases on a few of the samples, again, that we believe are attributable to the natural radioactivity increases from burning all the trees up.

ZEWE: Fire officials say the driest winter on record in New Mexico will keep forest tinder dry for months to come. Without major rain here, they add, there will be extreme fire danger all summer.

PAXON: There's going to be a lot of fire out here for a long time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZEWE: In fact, there's continuing to be a lot of fire all around Los Alamos, winds forecast to pick up later in the day and that could spell big trouble for this area again. The bus tours, by the way, for the victims who lost their homes, begin in a couple of hours. It's expected to be a very emotional time.

Charles Zewe, CNN live, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

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