Science

Menaced by flames, nuclear lab peers into future of wildfire

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LOS ALAMOS N.M. (AP) — Public schools were closed and evacuation bags packed this week as a stubborn wildfire crept within a few miles of the city of Los Alamos and its companion U.S. national security lab — where assessing apocalyptic threats is a specialty and wildland fire is a beguiling equation.

Lighter winds on Friday allowed for the most intense aerial attack this week on those flames west of Santa Fe as well as the biggest U.S. wildfire burning farther east, south of Taos.

“We had all kinds of aviation flying today,” fire operations chief Todd Abel said at a Santa Fe National Forest briefing Friday evening. “We haven’t had that opportunity in a long time.”

In Southern California, where a fire has destroyed at least 20 homes south of Los Angeles in the coastal community of Laguna Niguel, Orange County emergency officials scaled back the mandatory evacuation area Friday from 900 residences to 131.

People who remained on alert to prepare for evacuations west of Santa Fe included scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory who are tapping supercomputers to peer into the future of wildfires in the U.S. West, where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fire.

The research and partnerships eventually could yield reliable predictions that shape the way vast tracks of national forests are thinned — or selectively burned — to ward off disastrously hot conflagrations that can quickly overrun cities, sterilize soil and forever alter ecosystems.

“This actually is something that we’re really trying to leverage to look for ways to deal with fire in the future,” said Rod Linn, a senior lab scientist who leads efforts to create a supercomputing tool that predicts the outcome of fires in specific terrain and…

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