New Mexico Fire Burned 44,000 Acres

Monday, May 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — It was a time of jubilation for some, of intense sorrow for others, as thousands of people driven from their neighborhoods by searing walls of flame began returning home.

``Our town just looked like something very special,'' said Martha George, arriving Sunday afternoon at the house she had abandoned three days before. Her home of 16 years, like those of 7,000 other White Rock residents, had been spared.

But just up the mountainside in Los Alamos it was a different story. There, buses traveled winding roads, carrying 389 people who had lost their homes to the scene of the devastation.

Some cried and others sat in stony silence, seemingly stunned by the extent of the destruction, said Jack Downing, a Red Cross psychologist who accompanied the residents.

A charred brick staircase still stood on one lot, reaching a full story into the air. Nearby were a pair of wooden bird feeders, apparently untouched by the fire, one still filled with seed. Burned-out cars sat near scorched trees in neighborhoods now painted in shades of gray.

Only people whose homes were among the 260 destroyed by the Cerro Grande fire were allowed back Sunday. Even then, most could get only a glimpse of the destruction — authorities maintained it was too dangerous, even for people whose homes had been spared, to return.

The fire, which had consumed 44,323 acres, was 28 percent contained today, and U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Paxon refused to predict when full containment might be achieved. The weather was too unpredictable to allow for an estimate, he said.

Lower temperatures and calm wind today were helping firefighters gain ground along the wildfire's 89-mile perimeter, fire information officer Jon Schendel said. They're trying to move quickly, he said, because the wind is expected to kick up again Tuesday.

``There's a prediction of wind as high as 50 miles an hour. That's similar to what happened last Wednesday when (the fire) really blew up,'' Schendel said.

The fire was set by the National Park Service on May 4, intending a so-called controlled burn to reduce brush and grass that could fuel future fires. But the high wind quickly pushed it out of control. Park Superintendent Roy Weaver has since been placed on paid leave, and prescribed fires in the West have been put on hold for a month.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promised residents over the weekend that investigators would have answers for them by Thursday about why the blaze got out of control and who should be held accountable.

``Federal statutes that are in existence now say if we were negligent, we pay, and that will depend on the outcome of the investigation,'' Babbitt said Sunday on CNN's ``Late Edition.''

Meanwhile, in southern New Mexico, an 8,650-acre blaze caused by a campfire near the village of Ruidoso was contained Sunday evening. A 20,717-acre fire in the Sacramento Mountains that was started by a downed power line was 50 percent contained.

The thousands still unable to return to Los Alamos have been told their homes were not destroyed, but still don't know if they were partially burned or perhaps damaged by smoke. And they are unable to retrieve anything they left behind.

``I would like to see my house. It worries me that I can't be there,'' said Mark Schmitt, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who also lives in the town of 11,000 residents.

The lab's major facilities emerged unscathed, but the fire destroyed several trailers, a temporary building, and workshops and offices that were part of the complex where the atomic bomb was built in a World War II program known as the Manhattan Project.

Officials postponed plans to reopen the high-security nuclear weapons research lab today, saying they wanted to make more safety checks first.

Schmitt said he understood much work remained, but added that after watching the bus tours on television, ``I kind of resent the safety argument.''

Other evacuees were more patient.

``I don't want to go back until I know it's absolutely safe,'' said Randy Johnson, echoing the sentiments of several.

Down the mountain, people began pouring into White Rock as soon as word spread that the evacuation was over. They carried food and drink, and immediately got busy with day-to-day chores like watering plants and washing clothes.

``We're going to settle down and get back into our routine, try to get our lives back in order,'' said Mike Wismer, busy unloading groceries Sunday afternoon. He and his family had fled Thursday morning with their horse and two dogs.

Many were gratified that family treasurers they had left behind were still there.

``I have all my mother's papers since she was born,'' George said joyfully. ``I didn't think to take them.''

But for her and others, joy was tempered by the realization that others had lost everything.

``We feel for the people who lost their homes,'' said Wismer, his eyes filling with tears. ``Our heart goes out to those who lost their homes.''


On the Net:

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