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The BBC's David Willis
"About a thousand firefighters have now been deployed"
 real 28k

Friday, 30 June, 2000, 02:38 GMT 03:38 UK
Forest fire threatens US nuclear site
Wildfire at Hanford
A wildfire burns in front of the Hanford nuclear site
Hundreds of firefighters are trying to control a forest fire located near a radioactive weapons plant in Washington state.

The fire, which was started by a fatal car crash on Tuesday, has left one man badly burned and 20 homes destroyed.

Officials say the Hanford nuclear complex is under no immediate threat, but have removed classified information and evacuated 7,000 local residents.

The plant stores large amounts of radioactive waste from America's nuclear weapons programme.

Washington State Governor Gary Locke has declared a state of emergency in Benton County, about 240km (150 miles) from Seattle, and the National Guard is helping evacuate residents.

Some 750 firefighters, five airplanes and eight helicopters are helping to fight the blaze, which has spread across nearly 80,000 hectares.

Threat to Hanford

On Wednesday, the fire briefly threatened a Hanford building holding radioactive waste. The flames then leapt over the Yakima River to burn homes near Benton City.

We're all still a little leery here

John Bickford, Hanford Information Centre
The fire was partly controlled after about a third of the reservation's sagebrush plain was scorched, said Michael Minette, a spokesman for the Hanford Joint Information Centre.

"The fire is considered 40% contained on the Hanford site," he said.

However, firefighters were concerned that winds forecasted to blow at up to 50 km/h (30 mph) could push the flames to the dry brush closer to the nuclear areas.

Air tanker drops fire retardant
Firefighters have taken to the air to protect the Hanford complex
"That could all change with a wind shift," warned Hanford spokesman John Bickford.

"That's why we're all still a little leery here."

The reservation was set up during the 1940s to process plutonium for the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bombs used on Japan in World War II.

A massive radioactive waste clean-up project was recently launched.

Heart of America Northwest, a watchdog group following the Hanford clean-up project, said it was concerned the fire could sweep dangerous levels of plutonium into the air in certain areas.

"If the fire reaches contaminated radioactive soil, it could create serious radiation health hazards," the group said.

Radiological crews monitoring the area had as yet found no unusually high levels of radiation.

The incident comes shortly after another wildfire, which threatened the most important US nuclear facility at Los Alamos in May.

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See also:

14 May 00 | Americas
Historic atomic site destroyed
13 May 00 | Americas
US forest fires slacken
13 May 00 | Americas
Fires spread in US
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