Surrounded by Fire: The Los Alamos Story

May 12, 2000: Driving southbound on I-25, still more than 100 miles away from Santa Fe, I saw the white firestorm clouds crouched low on the horizon. At 90 miles out, I whiffed the first faint campfire smell of a forest in flames. At 70 miles out, I entered a 30-mile wide column of eye-watering, choking smoke which had been knocked flat by a hard dry west wind and was now angrily billowing and blanketing thick along the ground, like a demented San Francisco fog. It was already obvious this New Mexico fire was intent on taking no prisoners. My first stop was at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Santa Fe. Pastor Doug Escue had two member families who lost homes. One burned-out couple arrived when I was there, and we talked about the fire and their loss, and then prayed. I spent the night at an Immanuel family’s home (thanks, Gene and Kathy Neer!), and then, before sun-up, headed out to my first stop - the Red Cross shelter at Santa Fe High School. In between visits with fire victims, I spoke with Dave McClard, a Civil Air Patrol pilot, who was on break from flying fire damage assessment surveys. He said the fire had actually hit Los Alamos a glancing blow around the west and north sides of the town - that if it had hit head on the whole town would have been torched. The actual news was bad enough. About 250 homes were burned to the ground. Unlike typical structure fires that leave a burned out shell, this superheated wildfire left nothing but chimneys and foundations on many homes. There often wasn’t even much ash left. The wind-whipped embers hopscotched houses, leaving some standing amid devastation, and leveling some amid otherwise untouched areas. After leaving Santa Fe, I checked in at a second Red Cross shelter and spent some time comforting victims there. I coordinated with New Mexico State Health, Red Cross, and an Army National Guard psychologist, and then headed up to the fire scene at Los Alamos. New Mexico State Patrol cleared me through their perimeter, and by late morning, I rolled through the smoke into what was now a ghost town. Everyone was gone except firefighters and their trucks, police in their cruisers, National Guard troops by their Hummers, some newsies with their satellite dish transmitters, and the occasional volunteer like myself. I hadn’t wanted to come earlier when the fire most threatened the town. I didn’t want to get in the way of the emergency workers. Fire still surrounded the town on three sides, and bucket brigade helicopters and fire trucks were racing around, but it seemed the worst was over for the town itself, and now I might do some good. I headed straight for the emergency operations center at Los Alamos PD. When I walked in the LAPD lobby my nose wrinkled at the smell of smoke that had been pulled in by the ventilation system. It permeated everything. After checking in, I saw a man come into the lobby with his wife and daughter. They were obviously distressed about something, and told me that they needed to get back to their house – if it was still standing - for the man’s medication and medical records. Two weeks prior to the fire he was diagnosed with a very virulent form of throat cancer, and they had evacuated without realizing how long they would be forced to stay away. While waiting for an officer escort, I counseled and prayed with the family, and then accompanied them with LAPD to their still intact house and helped them find what they needed, including the cat they left behind. We still stay in touch – still praying for Bill especially. After clearing from the assist, I headed over to the US Forest Service’s Cerro Grande South Camp, where I spoke especially with their EMS people. On the way I was a little spooked when I saw some technicians setting up a radioactive monitoring device along the road (seems these were just a precautionary measure, but still…). At one of the roadblocks on the way I bumped into LAPD Officer Fred Rascon, who recognized me – turns out I had spoken with him about two months prior about his interest in starting a chaplaincy program at LAPD. I had sent him materials and offered him advice at the time. Now he was seeing up close and personal the need for chaplains in a critical incident. It was good to be able to meet Fred face to face, and after the dust settles, POM will continue to help LAPD with their chaplaincy program (give me a call, Freddy!). I spent most of the next few days with LAPD. I distributed POM’s Bible edition, “God’s Word for Peace Officers,” as a gift to any officer who wanted one (34 Bibles were left with LAPD, along with a couple for National Park Service officers). I also assisted Dr. Tom Lock (Los Alamos Lab EAP Director) and his team with critical incident stress debriefings for emergency personnel. I went on rides with LAPD, and along with ministry opportunities heard many exciting war stories from officers and dispatchers. Without minimizing the contribution of all the people who helped at the Los Alamos Fire, the LAPD personnel rank as heroes in my book. From the dispatchers who, with smoke coming in their dispatch center, continued to man phones and radios in the middle of a raging fire, to officers on the street who did everything from evacuate the town to personally fighting the fire, those folks did a great job. The town of Los Alamos was originally built by the US in the middle of World War II as a site for building the atomic bomb. Security was and is (as recent stories demonstrate) a paramount concern, so the town was built up in the mountains at 7,500 feet with only one main road. However, what works well for security is a detriment to evacuation. It is a remarkable testament to LAPD that they got thousands of people out in time with no deaths or serious injury. I heard one story about some officers who fought the fire with garden hoses to save the home of a retired dispatcher. Another officer, Corporal Neil Colyer, was due to retire at the time the fire started, but felt that he couldn’t abandon ship, and without a second thought worked throughout the crisis. In a story that illustrates the compassion that officers often feel despite their “John Wayne” image, one officer saw a raccoon, with hair burned off below the shoulders, painfully walking across the road. Instead of simply shooting the animal, J.C. Tiano called some wild animal rescue people to save the critter – which they did. Speaking of critters, Sergeant Randy Chavez and his animal control team rescued about 300 animals, some from hair-raising (hair-burning) situations. Many citizens left their animals behind either because they did not have enough time to evacuate them, or they did not realize the seriousness of the threat. In one incident, Sgt. Chavez and his team were loading horses on horse trailers with the firestorm raging around them. Dispatch advised them that their one road of escape was blocked by fire, but they raced out with loaded horse trailers through the fire line and down Diamond Drive, while behind them, as the fire flashed over the trees and wrapped around them, firefighters were cutting their hoses and also bailing out. Finally, officer Randy Foster, who grew up in Los Alamos and calls the west side home, let his own house burn while he worked to save others. I rode with Randy one night. We left the station to patrol the burned out west side, and got interrupted along the way by a medical assist and a drunk arrest (routine doesn’t stop for disaster). Afterward, Randy took me to where his house had been. He showed me the melted puddle of metal that had been his new motorcycle. He had a gun safe (fire rated for 1,500 degrees for 32 seconds for stored papers), but the heat from the fire was so intense that it had charred the guns inside. The fire was so hot the brass tumbler melted off the safe.

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