AP NEWS
Related topics

People Return After Los Alamos Fire

May 16, 2000

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) _ The thousands of people streaming back into fire-devastated Los Alamos on Tuesday found smoke still lingering in the air and most stores closed or without such staples as meat and vegetables.

It was a city entirely different from the one they had left just six days before, when they fled ahead of a wall of flames that raced up the sides of canyons and left 405 families homeless.

The Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory remained closed, and large pockets of the town remained without gas or electricity.

``Our neighborhood burned down. What happens now? Are people going to leave? Are they going to stick around and rebuild?″ wondered Jerry Kindsfather, who with his brother Gary operates Ed’s Food Market, a small grocery store on the edge of one of the city’s hardest-hit sections. People filed in Tuesday to stock up on things like eggs, milk and bread.

Twenty percent of Los Alamos, where the homes burned, was still off-limits Tuesday, and the devastation appeared overwhelming. Entire neighborhoods were burned, leaving the trees looking like blackened toothpicks. Smoke from the fire, now burning a safe distance away, still filled the canyons.

Crews were finding hazardous chemicals in the off-limits areas, including loose asbestos, swollen cans of paint, and propane bottles in the ash, state Environment Secretary Pete Maggiore said.

The 46,000-acre fire, 35 percent contained, was moving northeast, away from Los Alamos and toward unburned forest land Tuesday, said David Seesholtz, a fire information spokesman.

It started outside of town on National Park Service land on May 4, at Bandelier Monument, when a controlled burn meant to clear away dry brush and prevent future wildfires was pushed out of control by high winds.

At the peak of the danger, all 11,000 residents of Los Alamos and 14,000 people from surrounding communities were ordered out of their homes.

In Washington on Tuesday, the House unanimously called on the federal government to take responsibility and reimburse wildfire victims.

``This wasn’t an act of God. It was an act of man,″ said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the measure’s sponsor.

In the devastated neighborhoods, the fire raced down block after block, destroying almost everything in its path, but occasionally sparing a home here or there. On one street, a big blue house was still standing, while everything around it burned. On another, a two-story salmon-colored residence stood untouched, the only home left on the block.

John Jaramillo’s house and restaurant survived, but his girlfriend lost her home. They weren’t sure they wanted to stay.

``Part of me wants to help rebuild the town and the other part wants to just pack it up,″ he said.

About 75 percent of Los Alamos had its electricity back on Tuesday, said Chris Ortega, utilities manager for Los Alamos County. He said it would be at least another day before power was restored everywhere.

Gas was also available to about 75 percent of the town, but even in areas where it has been restored it won’t be turned on for individual homes until people return and request it. Utility workers were circling neighborhoods on Tuesday, volunteering to turn on the gas wherever they found someone home, Ortega said.

Some of the 2,000 people who were still not allowed to return home were briefly escorted by the National Guard into the devastated area so they could retrieve personal belongings such as clothes and medicine.

``The freezers have just got to be a mess. We’re hoping to grab garbage bags and throw everything in there,″ said Mary Holmes, who went with her husband, Herb, to Los Alamos High School to arrange a National Guard escort.

At Ed’s Market, Kindsfather returned to find refrigerators filled with spoiled eggs and melted ice cream that had oozed out of containers and formed a colorful sludge on the shelves. He also had to dump $20,000 worth of frozen food and won’t get another order until Thursday.

``We got rid of the chicken first,″ he said. ``That’s like a time bomb sitting around.″

At the True Value hardware store, manager Dennis George expects to do a brisk business in the days ahead in buckets, brooms, hammers, nails, flashlights and axes.

But one of the first sales his employee Brenda Law made Tuesday was for flower seeds.

``Everyone has their own way of healing,″ she said, ``and flowers represent life.″