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Los Alamos residents return as evacuation lifted

A fire crew member is seen as fire crews are deployed in order to attack hotspots from the Las Conchas wildfire near Los Alamos, New Mexico
A fire crew member is seen as fire crews are deployed in order to attack hotspots from the Las Conchas wildfire near Los Alamos, New Mexico

By Zelie Pollon

Santa Fe, New Mexico (Reuters) - Evacuation orders were lifted on Sunday over 10,000 residents of Los Alamos displaced by the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, as the blaze burns to the north away from the town.

The return of residents to their homes came a day after the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb, ended a state of emergency when the threat of the fire subsided around the site in northern New Mexico.

The Las Conchas blaze has consumed over 121,000 acres and is 11 percent contained as it burns toward the north away from Los Alamos, and about 2,000 firefighters are working to control its spread, according to officials.

Los Alamos and its entire population of over 10,000 people was ordered evacuated on Monday, forcing residents to move to shelters and a casino that opened its doors to the displaced.

"The time has finally come when we can repopulate Los Alamos, and no one could be happier than me," said Los Alamos County Police Chief Wayne Torpy.

Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas Tucker warned residents not to approach wild animals which have been seen fleeing the fire. At least three black bears have been seen in neighborhoods of Los Alamos.

Now ranked as the largest wild-lands blaze ever in New Mexico, the fire surpassed the previous record set in 2003 by the 94,000-acre Dry Lakes Fire in the Gila National Forest.

It also has destroyed 63 homes, fire officials said.

Authorities were deploying firefighting resources over a dozen miles north of Los Alamos to combat the blaze's spread on the Santa Clara Reservation and to protect sites considered sacred by Pueblo Indians there, said fire information officer Rob Torres.

The reservation covers 55,000 acres and the blaze has charred over 14,000 acres of that land, said Joe Baca, a spokesman for the Santa Clara Pueblo.

The blaze also has spread into the Bandelier National Monument, an ancestral home of Pueblo Indians.

On Saturday, two firefighters were injured in the fire, with one suffering wounds to his lower extremities and the other receiving a head injury, according to fire officials. Both firefighters were listed in stable condition.

Meanwhile, Los Alamos said it planned to reopen on Wednesday.

The fire forced the closure of the national lab for a week and burned dangerously close to its property. Flames were spotted at least once on nuclear lab land.

"Los Alamos National Laboratory appears to have escaped serious damage from the Las Conchas fire," Lab Director Charles McMillan said in a memo. "We are grateful for the tremendous efforts of emergency responders that helped spare the Lab and the town of Los Alamos."

Laboratory personnel will check each of the more than 2,000 buildings on its 36-square-mile campus before it reopens.

At one point this week, the New Mexico fire's edge was reported just 2 miles from a collection of about 20,000 metal drums containing plutonium-contaminated clothing and other waste stored on a corner of the 36-square-mile lab property.

Nuclear watchdog groups and some citizens had raised concerns about the fire possibly unleashing residual ground contamination left from decades of experimental explosions and waste disposal in the area.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis)

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