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For the week of August 2 through 8, 2000

INEEL wildfire contained; no radiation leaks, spokesman says

Fire danger extremely high in Idaho


"We know we’re going to have fires. It’s not a question of ‘if.’ It’s a question of when and where. So we have to be good at protecting facilities. It’s what we do."

-Brad Bugger, INEEL spokesman


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

The unmistakable haze of nearby wildfires settled over the Wood River Valley last week as a fire at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) and one in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area ripped through south-central Idaho’s dry summer tinder.

Thirteen fires were reported burning across Idaho on Sunday, including the massive 74,000-acre Clear Creek fire near Salmon.

The INEEL brush fire was declared contained at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon, and the Sawtooth Wilderness fire, called the Benedict Fire, was contained at 6 p.m. Friday evening. The

On Friday, crews gained the upper hand fighting the 18,000-acre wildfire that had forced the evacuation of hundreds of INEEL employees, according to an INEEL spokesman, Brad Bugger.

No one was injured and no radiation release was detected at the 890-square-mile compound, Bugger said in a Monday telephone conversation.

On Thursday, some 1,800 workers had been ordered out of three buildings at the nuclear research and storage facility. It was the third time this year that a fire has threatened one of the nation’s nuclear facilities.

Bugger said there have been over 40 fires on the INEEL in the past five years.

"We know we’re going to have fires. It’s not a question of ‘if.’ It’s a question of when and where. So we have to be good at protecting facilities. It’s what we do," he said.

Bugger said INEEL officials constructed "fire breaks"—areas around facilities that are bereft of vegetation—to help protect from wildfires earlier this summer.

"We knew the fire danger was very high," he said. "We cleared vegetation around the facilities."

Decreasing winds over Thursday night quelled the invading flames, and by Friday morning, only 50 firefighters were on the scene in eastern Idaho, putting out a few remaining hot spots.

Workers were allowed back on the job Friday, and INEEL officials declared the fire fully contained at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

Bugger said the fire did not burn any ground where there is nuclear waste buried. But that scenario is a possibility, he said.

"There’s always a possibility," he said.

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The 25-acre Benedict Fire in the Sawtooth Wilderness is being attributed to careless persons in the area. Had the fire been naturally ignited, it would have been left to take its natural course under the forest’s wilderness burn policy.

The fire started alongside a trail, and people were seen leaving the area just prior to the fire being reported, according to a Sawtooth National Forest press release.

The fire danger remains extreme in southern and central Idaho, and fire restrictions remain in effect. Campfires are restricted to developed recreation sites, except for fires fueled by liquid petroleum, and smoking is not allowed unless in an enclosed vehicle or home or in a three-foot clear area.

Idaho’s fires were among about 50 fires burning more than 5,000 acres across the nation Sunday, the National Fire Information Center reported.

In the West, wildfires continued to burn in Montana, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico.

 

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