UPDATE: All INL operations back to normal
UPDATE (9 a.m. Thursday)
The Idaho National Laboratory is reporting that all facilities are back up and running as crews continue to battle Sheep Fire. The fire is expected to be 100 percent contained today.
INL released the following information Thursday morning:
UPDATE (7:37 p.m. Wednesday)
The Idaho National Laboratory released the following update Wednesday night:
PREVIOUS STORY (4:30 p.m. Wednesday)
ARCO — The Sheep Fire has grown to over 110,000 acres, making it currently the largest wildfire in the lower 48 states, and it could become the largest wildfire in INL history.
Firefighters from around east Idaho are continuing to work to contain Sheep Fire. During a news conference Wednesday, officials were hesitant to give a containment percentage due to constantly shifting winds. However, they were confident they have the fire mostly under control.
“This is one of the most extreme, erratic fires that I’ve experienced in my career at the INL,” INL Fire Chief Eric Gosswiller said.
In 2010, the Jefferson Fire burned 114,000 acres of INL land and another 30 acres on BLM land. All 100,000 acres of the Sheep Fire are on INL land, and it could grow throughout Wednesday.
Gosswiller said the top two priorities for containing the fire were putting down a scratch line to prevent the fire from expanding northward. The other was to prevent the fire from crossing U.S. Highway 20. Firefighters accomplished both Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning, firefighting efforts were focused on containing the southwest corner of the fire.
“We’re not going to say this is 100 percent contained by any means. We anticipate by tonight, if we survive the wind shifts this afternoon, that we’ll be comfortable calling this fire 50 to 60 percent contained,” Gosswiller said.
He said they have around 105 firefighters working to contain the fire.
INL Chief Operations Officer Juan Alvarez said there is no danger to the public.
“Facilities were closed as precautionary measures to keep our people safe and to make sure firefighting efforts were not impacted in any way,” Alvarez said.
He said the expect INL employees will be able to return to work as normal Thursday as long as the fire remains under control.
“We believe there is a high probability we’ll be able to reopen the facilities tomorrow,” Alvarez said.
Currently, the only INL facility operating as normal is the Specific Manufacturing Capability facility, which is north of the fire. Though other facilities are only operating with essential personnel, Alvarez said the fire doesn’t pose any danger to them.
One area that remains a concern is protecting the power grid.
“Learning from previous fires … we’ve treated all our key grid infrastructure with fire retardant paint. We haven’t had an opportunity to see how that works. I’m proud to say that we didn’t lose a single structure of the INL power grid,” Gosswiller said.
However, Gosswiller said Rocky Mountain Power did lose some of its power grid structures.
Officials will continue to monitor the fire including air quality and radiation levels.
“We want to make sure, because the Idaho National Laboratory is a nuclear complex, that the fire itself hasn’t gone through any areas where 50 years ago … there was some operation where there might be some radiological contamination buried in the soil,” Alvarez said. “I’m happy to say that we haven’t had any release of radioactive material. And there hasn’t been anything that we have detected that would be of concern to us.”
Once the fire is entirely out, efforts will begin to find out the full extent of the damage it caused, including to plant and animal life, and formulate a plan to begin habitat restoration.
“There’s a lot of work to do when the fire’s out … to deal with the impacts,” Alvarez said.