By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A raging wildfire has spread to within one mile of the nation's preeminent nuclear weapons facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, authorities said on Monday.
The blaze has grown to 43,597 acres and caused the evacuation of hundreds of people, with thousands encouraged to evacuate voluntarily.
The very active Las Conchas fire, which started Sunday afternoon, continues to start spot fires up to a half mile ahead of the main fire line, said Lawrence Lujan, a spokesman with the Santa Fe National Forest.
The blaze has spread to within one mile of the lab's southwest boundary, Lujan said.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, which ensures the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, is closed on Monday due to the fire. Officials have established an emergency Operations center and have dispatched emergency crews across the lab to protect key facilities and materials, said Los Alamos Laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark on Monday.
Protected areas include all hazardous and radioactive facilities and our proton accelerator and supercomputing centers, he said.
"We're not going to back off until the lab is in the clear," Roark told Reuters.
"We've been in contact with (NNSA Administrator) Tom D'Agostino as well as senior Department of Energy officials," NNSA Los Alamos Site Office Manager Kevin Smith in a statement. "They are ready to support the Laboratory and people of Los Alamos County with additional resources as needed."
Late Sunday, Governor Susana Martinez dispatched the National Guard to help with possible evacuation efforts.
Voluntary evacuations have been issued for the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock, which have a combined population of 18,000. There were approximately 100 residents evacuated from Cochiti Mesa and Las Conchas communities, as well as Bandelier National Monument, which has been closed for three days due to the fire.
Red flag conditions, the highest fire alert, are expected to feed the growing blaze throughout the day.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)