Lightning sparked blazes at nuclear test areas

Wildland firefighters battled more than just the usual Nevada brush blaze this week. They had to contend with the possibility of radiation.

Lightning sparked two fires Tuesday within the Nevada National Security Site, the former nuclear test site 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. By Friday, the fires had consumed more than 6,000 acres, with the smaller blaze fully contained and the larger only 25 percent contained.

Crews have not only been watching winds and weather, but are monitoring radiation levels in the air, making certain the flames don't stir up remnants of decades-old detonations. One of the fires is "several miles" from the location of an above-ground test, a safe distance according to Dante Pistone, a spokesman at the test site's operations center.

"There have been no positive readings," which was expected, he said.

And the fire isn't approaching the old nuclear test sites, he said. But officials are keeping an eye on radiation levels nonetheless, to be safe.

Because fires are within the site's 1,360-square-mile boundaries doesn't mean they coincide with nuclear test areas.

"The site is the size of Rhode Island," Pistone said.

From 1951 until 1992, there were 928 nuclear tests involving 1,021 detonations at the test site. Of these, 100 were above ground and could be affected by disturbances such as wildfires.

However, the vast majority of tests occurred in the site's northeast area of Yucca and Frenchman flats. The two fires are in the western portion. Still, the larger, 4,700-acre Timber Fire resides in Area 18, which underwent three tests in 1962.

This fire is one-fourth contained, while the Weston Fire is completely contained after consuming 1,300 acres. Fully contained means firefighters have created a buffer all he way around the fire, giving it nowhere to go.

Of Area 18's tests, two were low yield and slightly above ground. They were called Little Feller I and II, testing the effect of nuclear detonation on military hardware. Little Feller I resulted in radio- activity being detected offsite, and was the last above-ground test on site. The third test, Johnnie Boy, was a 500-ton blast, meaning equivalent to the energy released from 500 tons of TNT. This test was slightly below ground but radioactivity was still detected offsite.

The fact that these tests and the Timber Fire are both within Area 18 still doesn't mean they will overlap if the fire continues to spread, said Pistone. The area occupies 89 square miles, which is 1.3 times larger than Washington, D.C.

The fire is several miles from any of the test sites and not moving in that direction, he said.

"It's of no concern to us," he said, adding that firefighters are wearing their normal gear and no radiation-protection equipment.

About 100 firefighters -- belonging to the security site and Bureau of Land Management -- have been fighting the blazes, using ground crews, a BLM helicopter and four planes.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@review or 702-383-0279.