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Wildfire closes Los Alamos National Laboratory

The Las Conchas fire started Sunday afternoon and grew quickly; at one point, the blaze was less than a mile from national lab property.

The Las Conchas fire on Sunday, viewed from Los Alamos when the blaze was relatively new.
The Las Conchas fire on Sunday, viewed from Los Alamos when the blaze was relatively new. T. J. Shankland

Update at 7 a.m. PT: The fire now covers more than 40,000 acres. The threat level to Los Alamos National Laboratory remains the same.

A large, fast-moving wildfire threatens one of the most important and well-known national laboratories in the United States.

Los Alamos National Laboratory will be closed for all nonessential personnel on Monday in the wake of a raging blaze called the Las Conchas fire that started about 12 miles southwest of the town of Los Alamos and quickly swelled to more than 3,500 acres, or more than 5.4 square miles.

Flames and huge plumes of thick, black smoke shot into the sky Sunday from New Mexico's Jemez Mountains, where the famous lab was originally located atop arid mesas west of Santa Fe to better hide the top-secret Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb.

On Sunday afternoon, the fire started in the nearby forest and spread quickly. High winds and weeks without moisture in the Southwest have sparked a number of massive fires throughout Arizona and New Mexico.

The fire can be seen from the Pajarito Mountain ski area Webcam.

The lab maintains a great deal of property not only in the town of Los Alamos, but also in the surrounding area adjacent to the Santa Fe National Forest and Bandelier National Monument. As of late Sunday, Los Alamos officials reported that the fire had not yet entered lab property and that all radioactive material and other sensitive areas, including the lab's proton accelerator and supercomputing centers are safely secured. However, the Los Alamos Monitor newspaper reported late Sunday that the fire was less than a mile from the lab property line's southwestern boundary.

"The Las Conchas Fire has the potential to grow rapidly and threatens not only vital natural resources but also many homes and businesses across Los Alamos County," New Mexico State Forester Tony Delfin said in a news release announcing that FEMA funds had been released to help fight the fire.

The Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos sparked Sunday afternoon and quickly swelled to force a closure of the national lab there. Screen Capture from KOAT-TV by Eric Mack/CNET

Eleven years ago, the disastrous Cerro Grande fire started as a controlled burn near Los Alamos that got out of control and eventually destroyed hundreds of homes, as well as some structures on lab property. A debate still rages today between some locals and government officials over whether radioactive material was burned and released into the environment as a result.

Late Sunday, a voluntary evacuation order was in place for those who live in Los Alamos County.

Below is a time-lapse video of the fire.