Los Alamos fire has taken many things that cannot be replaced
Nancy Matlack Williams
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- I drove through my old neighborhood today, through the burned out, twisted, heaps of melted metal and gray ash piled on the foundations of what used to be homes, before the Cerro Grande fire.
Melted cars in the driveways and carports. Blackened sticks standing where cool green pines used to be. Yellow "no trespassing" tape warning people away from some of the remains, 6-foot-high chainlink fences thrown up around others. This was Arizona Avenue, nestled against the Jemez Mountains. Tucked into the sweeping expanses of tree skeletons and scorched concrete, stand two children's playlots, their colorful swings and slides empty now.
Roses are blooming against the gaping, hollow foundations of their former homes. I understand now, at bone level, what "surreal" means.
I drove through my old neighborhood and I wept. It was all too much -- house after house, street after street, all those lives and memories up in smoke and flames with nothing but ashes as evidence that life had happened here, that people got up when their alarm clocks went off and read their newspapers and ate their eggs, gulped their coffee, got the kids off to school, answered the phone, walked the dogs, drove to work, made love and art and soup and laughter.
All of it gone.
"Everybody cries," said my sister Chris, who had taken the wheel by now. She herself was numb. She had been in Los Alamos on May 4 when the controlled burn was started in Bandelier National Monument, and also on May 7 when it exploded into the townsite, the same day our father finally burst through the last stages of lung and liver cancer and, with a fever of 105 degrees, burned out of his wasted physical body and died. On May 10, the day Los Alamos was evacuated as the first of 405 homes began to burn, Chris was in Santa Fe picking up dad's ashes, and the National Guard wouldn't let her back to town to bring him home.
Today she drove slowly down our old street, 36th; the fire had blazed a wide black swath through most of the top of it, stopping three houses short of the one we grew up in. There was no way to tell where our friends had lived because all the wreckage looked the same: heaps of ash, scorched foundations, twisted and contorted metal that used to be the heating systems. Our old North Community neighborhood was almost nonexistent, with 40 of 44 structures, many of them duplexes or fourplexes, on the west end of Arizona Avenue destroyed. Though nothing was recognizable now, from the list of addresses we knew we were looking at where the Landahls, the Rutherfords, the Lazaruses, the Seagraves, and so many others had lived -- we'd say their names in a whisper as we passed slowly through what looked like the aftermath of an atomic blast. The irony has escaped no one.
"To the outside world, Los Alamos is the nuclear weapons laboratory," says my childhood friend Liz Rutherford. "But residents and those from Los Alamos identify most with its natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and casual, friendly people."
Three of the Rutherford brothers had moved back to town to raise their families; her widowed mother still lived in the family home. The family lost three of their four homes.
The house Liz's 85-year-old mother lost to the Cerro Grande fire was not just a house, but her home for more than 50 years.
"It was home to eight of us kids and all of our friends and relatives," Liz said. "Hundreds of people have been overnight guests over the years. My mom and dad were always the most giving hosts--nobody was a 'guest.' They were part of the family. No problem when my brother had 18 friends from college who needed a place to stay overnight--there was room. Room in a tiny seven-room government home; four small bedrooms--many people have bathrooms bigger than any of our bedrooms. No problem when I brought four guys home from college for a weekend. Research scientists on travel in Los Alamos, longing for a home-cooked meal, found warmth in our modest home. Cancer patients from around the world being treated at the cancer treatment center (one of those good things the Lab does) found warmth in our home. My parents were never a 'respecter of peoples'--all were welcome.
"My beautiful, loving, giving mom, who made all of this possible is now homeless. My brothers who were supporting her in our family home have lost their homes."
I remember my father showing me how to look up at the night sky, anchored from our 36th Street yard, and find Polaris, the north star. We watched the first Russian satellite, Sputnik, make its way across the dark heavens when it was the only thing moving up there, back when planes were forbidden to fly over Los Alamos. I can still get my bearings at night.
Liz remembers that as kids, they often slept outside in sleeping bags gazing at the dark, starlit sky. "I remember the whole family lying on our backs on the terrace watching Sputnik fly over. Every astronomical event over the years brought us outside to gaze for hours.
"My dad chose this higher site before the house was finished because of the view overlooking Santa Fe, Truchas Peaks, and the Rio Grande Valley," she said. "Over the years the growing ponderosa pines blocked much of the view. Now the majestic trees which filled the air with a sweet smell of vanilla are black poles. The lone piņon tree which bore empty piņon nuts is gone. Our dear friends and neighbors for almost 40 years, the Usners, lost everything. Art Sr., who died last year, was a skilled woodworker and handcarved some of their furniture. He made his own telescope and would often invite us to view the sky with him. His yard was filled with tiny bonsai trees that he carefully tended before his death."
You who live at a distance, hearing news of the fire and recovery, hear the numbers: more than 44,000 acres of land burned. More than 400 residential structures, homes to more than 1,000 people. Over a billion dollars in damage and still counting. Temperatures like a blast furnace -- greater than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to fuse the soil into glass.
There is a story, and people, behind every one of those numbers.
"This is the federal government's responsibility, and we take responsibility," say all the right federal officials and politicians every night on the news. "We will make you whole."
Excuse me -- am I really hearing this? How can money make this devastation, this tragedy, whole? The government nearly burned my town down. The park service, in a colossal goof, torched the homes of more than 1,000 human beings. All their precious memories, all their history -- the children's plaster-of-Paris handprints from Mothers Day 1962, the wedding pictures, the grape ivy someone nurtured from seedling to window-filler, the aquarium full of guppies -- all of it, gone without a trace.
This is what wildfire does: burns the heart right out of something. Eats it up like a cancer. Yes, life goes on and grass will grow up and cover the scars someday, new lifecycles will begin and spring will come once more, but it won't be green enough, ever, to fill the hollow ache or the longing for what has been lost, the void where a family's safe haven was.
A smashed Ming vase can be mended by an artisan who knows what she's doing, perhaps so it looks perfect from the outside, but the inside will always show the truth of the accident that broke it. The view from the heart, from behind the eyes, from the inside looking out -- that's what tells the true story.
Los Alamos will always have a before and after, now, and it can never be what it was. I hope this precious mended vase is all the sweeter and more beloved for its brokenness -- for living on, for surviving in its new form, and for not being swept out with the remains of the firestorm of May 10, 2000.
More fire coverage and links are at the Albuquerque Journal's website: http://abqjournal.com/firepage.htm