A Year After Fire, Los Alamos Is On the Mend


Hammering and drilling ring out and flatbeds tote lumber to home sites as workers renew a neighborhood destroyed by a fire that was set to clear the forest surrounding the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

For some, there's a sense of urgency to restore some normalcy a year after one of New Mexico's most devastating wildfires.

"You can't believe how much that bolsters your spirits just to see the trees get placed on the lot," said Walter Temple, 59, who lost nearly everything.

But others have staked "For Sale" signs at the curbs, needing or wanting to move on.

And while officials point to lessons learned, fear remains that fire could strike again despite new rules created after last year's blaze.

"We're still in big danger of fire," said Dick Burick, deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Eighty percent of the fuel is still out there." That is, most of the undergrowth and trees remain.

The National Park Service set the Cerro Grande Fire on May 4, 2000, to clear underbrush in Bandelier National Monument. But the fire, pushed by high winds, rampaged into town six days later, forcing 25,000 people to evacuate.

Miraculously, no one died and only three people were injured. But the fire destroyed more than 220 structures, left more than 400 families homeless and burned some 43,000 acres. It destroyed or damaged 115 buildings at the lab, site of the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb during World War II. Flames got as close as 50 yards to a building containing radioactive tritium.

An Interior Department investigation last year said Park Service officials did not follow proper procedures and didn't have enough fire crews on hand to keep the blaze under control. The Park Service has completed its own investigation, but results have yet to be released.

Roy Weaver, then superintendent at Bandelier, took responsibility for setting the prescribed burn.

"If we would have known then what we know now, we certainly would not have started the fire," said Weaver, who retired in July and spoke by phone from his home in Grand Junction, Colo. "We learned from this experience, and we really do care about what happened."

Weaver hopes the pending Park Service report will partly exonerate him and clarify misperceptions about the planning and execution of the prescribed burn.

"It was such a helpless, anguished feeling when that wind kicked up and the embers blew across the road," Weaver said.

"I just didn't see how anybody could forgive me and could even have a kind thought, and as it turns out, a lot of people did," he said.

The Park Service stopped prescribed burns after the fire but plans to resume them this summer with new rules, including one requiring a qualified consultant to review all burn plans.

"We're all trying to learn from what happened last summer," said Park Service fire director Sue Vap. "I think one of the biggest things that we learned is that you can never become complacent, even with a successful program."

Burick said the concern this year is Frijoles Canyon, another part of Bandelier featuring ancient Indian ruins and thick stands of trees.

"If a fire starts in there this summer--lightning strike, whatever--and that fire sweeps toward the north, we're right back into it again," he said.

Weaver agreed the forest is still in danger of wildfire because areas are still choked with trees and brush that could fuel another blaze.

"What we have now is unnatural, unhealthy and unsafe," he said.

Residents are reminded of the consequences of having an overgrown forest every day when they look up at the mountainside of charred timber.

They also know the importance of restoring precious resources. Volunteers have planted seedlings and grasses that are sprouting, and some wildlife has returned to the burned area.

Residents, meanwhile, are anxious to return to the sites of their own homes. For a year, their homes have been at FEMAville, rows of furnished gray trailers that the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought in to provide fire victims temporary housing.

"We're tired of dealing with the dirt and the mud," said postal worker Steve Williams. "We want to get out of here."

Williams said he and his wife, Petra, hope to build a house, but rising construction costs in Los Alamos are making the search for a contractor difficult.

The fire put a lot of stress on the couple's relationship, especially as they struggled with the paperwork FEMA requires to file a claim.

"Our lives were in real turmoil," Williams said.

By the end of April, FEMA had compensated, to some degree, 4,840 claimants and $102 million had been distributed to residents, business owners and others, said Don Erbach, director of FEMA's Santa Fe claims office.

Many residents haven't been able to put the fire behind them.

Carol Relyea, 50, said she still suffers from insomnia after her mother's home, where she grew up, was destroyed.

"Every night when I would just lie down, I would walk through every room of the house that had burned. I would walk through and see the things," she said.

Edgar and Lucy Thomas, who lost everything but a few clothes and some jewelry, discussed fireplace dimensions with a contractor as shingles were nailed to the roof of their new three-bedroom home on their old lot.

"It's really like a two-sided coin," Lucy Thomas said. "In one sense, we're excited about the new house. We never planned anything like this before. But the other side is, there's not one thing in our new house that was there before the fire."

Lucy Thomas still tears up when she thinks about the family Bible, photographs and a visitors' guest book covering 46 years that were lost in the fire. She said any time she smells smoke, she becomes anxious until she finds its source.

The anniversary of a disaster often triggers feelings of regret or depression about the tragedy. But most of those who lost homes said they had dealt with their initial anger at the federal government and no longer harbored bitterness about the fire.

Temple still regrets the things his family lost, like the antique crystal and china his wife inherited from her parents and old photographs, which federal aid can never replace. "But I think they [the federal government] are trying to do the very best that they can," he said.

"We're all alive and we're all together and we're all still a family."


Associated Press reporters Richard Benke and Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.

Fire by the Numbers

Statistics on the Cerro Grande Fire:

* Started May 4 as a prescribed burn set by the National Park Service in Bandelier National Monument, west of Los Alamos.

* 42,849 acres burned, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The entire fire area within containment lines--including unburned areas--was 47,650 acres, according to the National Park Service.

* All of Los Alamos evacuated on May 10, 2000. White Rock evacuated the next morning, for a total of about 25,000 residents.

* More than 400 families lost their homes. More than 220 structures burned.

* More than 115 Los Alamos National Laboratory buildings were destroyed or damaged.

* There were three minor injuries.

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