Idaho nuclear facility to resume normal operations as wildfire threat diminishes

No buildings were lost, but the fire, which was at 60 percent containment, could be the largest wildfire recorded in the history of the national lab.
Image: Idaho wildfires
This photo provided by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) shows wildfires burning in Idaho, Wednesday, July 24, 2019.Bureau of Land Management via AP

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By Phil Helsel

A leading nuclear research center in Idaho expects to resume normal operations Thursday thanks to progress containing a wildfire burning in sagebrush on the grounds, which had prompted the evacuation of non-essential personnel, officials said.

"The fire no longer poses a threat to key INL research facilities," the Idaho National Labrotory said in a statement Wednesday.

The so-called Sheep Fire was sparked by lightning around 6:30 p.m. Monday, but no buildings at the Idaho National Laboratory have been lost. The lab said air testing has found routine radiological monitoring.

It could be the largest wildfire in the history of the national lab, a nuclear energy research and testing center covering around 900 square miles west of Idaho Falls and which was established as a nuclear reactor testing station in 1949, a lab official said.

There have been no injuries. The fire is burning in open areas, but where there are power poles, he said.

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"This is one of the most extreme, erratic fires that I've experienced in my career at the INL," laboratory Fire Chief Eric Gosswiller said at a news conference Wednesday. He said crews are confident fire lines will keep the blaze contained, and defenses will be in place in case they don't.

The fire has burned around 113,000 acres and was 60 percent contained Wednesday evening, said Earl Johnson, public information director assistant at a joint information center.

The fire is contained within the national lab's property borders, in open areas, officials said.

Around 4,000 employees and more than 1,000 contractors work at the Idaho National Laboratory, Johnson said.

"Those of us that live in the West understand that this is fire season. We know the events such as the Sheep Fire are not just possible, but predictable,” said Juan Alvarez, chief operations officer at the national laboratory and deputy lab director.

"What we’ve seen so far is that our preparation has allowed us to limit this fire’s impact on our people, on our property," Alvarez said.

The fire had caused the lab to curtail some operations, but by Thursday it is expected to be back to normal, the center said in a statement.

Wildfires are not uncommon on the sprawling nuclear sites scattered across the arid West, the Associated Press reported. A blaze burned more than 62 square miles last weekend near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where most of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons was created. That fire didn't threaten any buildings.

Several wildfires are currently burning in Idaho, many of which were caused by lightning, according to the U.S. Forest Service.