New Mexicans Return to Burned Homes

Tuesday, May 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — When Bill Starkovich heard his neighborhood had reopened, he rushed home ahead of his wife and jumped behind the lawnmower.

After the grass was cut, he hurriedly watered the plants, dumped spoiled food from the refrigerator and swept ash from his driveway.

``I wanted to make the house look nice for my wife,'' said Starkovich, 42, one of the first residents to return to Los Alamos after authorities reopened most of town Monday. ``I've been at it for two hours now.''

He stood beaming when Kim Starkovich finally arrived with the couple's 17-year-old daughter, Aly. There were hugs of relief.

``We were very fortunate,'' Kim Starkovich said. ``Some of our friends were not.''

Fire roared into Los Alamos last week, destroying more than 220 structures and leaving 405 families homeless. All 11,000 residents of Los Alamos were evacuated on Wednesday, followed by thousands more from White Rock and other nearby communities.

The 46,283-acre blaze was 35 percent contained today, and firefighters were clearing a line on the northeast end of the fire where strong wind was expected to push the blaze today, said David Seesholtz, a fire information officer. He said the wind could blow embers as far as a mile into unburned forest land.

``This is a big day. We have red flag warnings for wind of 25 to 35 miles an hour, and 40 to 50 miles an hour this afternoon,'' fire information officer Teri Cleeland said. ``If we can get through today, the weather's looking better tomorrow.''

Fifteen miles from town, on the edge of the Santa Clara Pueblo Indian reservation, the fire continued to rage out of control, damaging water resources and valuable archaeological sites.

Tribal fire spokesman Alvin Warren said the fire had consumed more than 6,000 acres — ``more than 10 percent of our reservation.'' Pueblo Gov. Denny Gutierrez said the fire was burning near a creek that the tribe depends on for its water.

``It's our lifeline coming down from that canyon,'' he said. ``Our watershed is there, cultural matters in the valley. It's very devastating.''

In southern New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains, a fire sparked last week by a downed powerline was 65 percent contained today after burning more than 20,000 acres.

A twin-engine plane assisting firefighters there crashed in a remote canyon Monday, killing both men on board and sparking a small brush fire that was quickly extinguished, said Reggie Selman, a state police dispatcher in Alamogordo.

Nearly a quarter of Los Alamos remained closed today, and even in the reopened section, police Chief Rich Melton said people would have to do without gas or electricity for up to a week.

The U.S. House today approved a resolution calling on the federal government to find a way to fully compensate families who lost their homes in the fire. The resolution, which doesn't carry the weight of law, was approved without dissent.

``Everyone in this town knows the federal government started the fire,'' said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. ``This wasn't an act of God. It was an act of man.''

As the Starkoviches surveyed their back yard, which sits on the rim of a timbered canyon, they quickly saw just how fortunate they had been: Trees and underbrush were blackened just 100 yards away. Across the canyon, yellow warning tape marked the spot where a half-dozen homes had stood only a week before.

``That could have been us,'' Starkovich said, one hand gripping his fence, the other around his wife. In the distance, smoke rose from the mountains where the fire continues to burn.

Starkovich, a security specialist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, spent much of the fire hunkered down in the nuclear lab's emergency operations center, one of a handful of people who didn't have to evacuate.

Although the area housing the lab's nuclear weapons activity was spared, five historic buildings where the world's first atomic bomb were developed burned to the ground.

The lab remained closed Monday while officials checked the air for radioactivity.

Several miles away, at an evacuation center in Pojoaque, some of the people who no longer have homes listened as their congressmen told them the federal government was to blame for the disaster and would do everything in its power to help them.

``We are responsible for what happened,'' said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

The area went up in flames after a controlled burn, started by the National Park Service to clear brush, leaped out of control when winds kicked up last week. Park Superintendent Roy Weaver has been placed on leave pending an investigation.


On the Net:

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