LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- A firestorm swept through the abandoned streets of Los Alamos today, burning at least 100 homes while frustrated firefighters ran short of water and were forced to retreat.
At least 18,000 people were evacuated from Los Alamos, including 7,000 in suburban White Rock this morning, where many evacuees had once sought safety.
''We weren't ready down here. We were the refugee center for our friends,'' Kirk Christensen said as he and his wife loaded their camper and headed into a sea of cars crawling down the highway. They were headed for a friend's house in Santa Fe, to camp in the yard.
No injuries have been reported, but President Clinton declared New Mexico a major disaster area.
At the storied Los Alamos National Laboratory, for the first time shut down by fire, flames singed a research building but it did not ignite. Explosives and radioactive material were protected in fireproof facilities, lab officials said.
''We can assure the country and New Mexico that our nuclear materials are safe,'' said Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico congressman.
The fire was set by the National Park Service a week ago to clear brush, but quickly flared out of control, racing through stands of ponderosa pine as it grew to some 18,000 acres. Winds gusted to 50 mph Wednesday and forecasters said they could increase today to 60 mph.
The fire was too dangerous to battle head-on, firefighters said. They pulled back as flames advanced, moving their command post to relative safety.
''This fire's got a mind of its own,'' county spokesman Bill Lehman said late Wednesday. Firefighters were reluctant to back off, Lehman said, but ''there was just nothing we could do, because of the wind.''
Water-bombing helicopters and airplanes dropping pink fire retardant bombarded the blaze, hoping to narrow its westward and northward thrust.
Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is essentially a company town for the federal lab. It sprang up in the 1940s as the base of operations for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb. There are still military barracks and military-style housing in Los Alamos, along with relatively upscale, newer developments.
Neighborhood by neighborhood, the town burned Wednesday.
House after house filled with fire, glowed like jack-o-lanterns, then exploded in pulsing orange flames. Just after sundown, flames marched to a tree-covered ridge overlooking downtown, lighting the night sky.
As evacuees fled to shelters, hotels and motels outside Los Alamos, firefighter Sam Schroeder stood outside one flaming home.
''This is bizarre -- this house won't be touched,'' she said, pointing to the house next door. ''This one will go all the way to the ground.''
The Los Alamos laboratory declared a general emergency at 11 p.m. Wednesday, saying there were grass and brush fires at three of its research facilities. Its weapons-engineering tritium facility at Technical Area 16 was swept by fire, but the masonry building was left intact, lab officials said.
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