Days after evacuation, Los Alamos residents get brief tour of town's ruins

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - Made refugees by fire, hundreds of evacuated residents of Los Alamos solemnly returned Sunday in convoys of yellow school buses to the seared homes, blackened yards and still-smoking vistas of their abandoned town.

Moments of loss and joy marked Mother's Day for the region's weary residents. Families without homes came together in Red Cross shelters to mark the holiday, while churchgoers mourned their own losses but expressed relief that nobody was hurt. In a sign of life returning to normal, the 7,000 people of nearby White Rock, which wasn't burned, were allowed to go home.

The most poignant scenes, though, came in Los Alamos, where the buses arrived from Santa Fe throughout the day. They carried counselors, clergy and 389 residents up winding roads to the mountain community of 11,000 that was suddenly emptied of life four days earlier.

But the trip home was incomplete: Access was limited, and most were forced to see the damage from behind windows as the buses slowly moved through town. The handful who did get off the bus photographed or videotaped the damage, but were told not to get too close.

Only residents whose homes were destroyed were allowed back into Los Alamos. Burned-out cars sat near scorched trees in neighborhoods now painted in shades of gray. In one lot, a solitary, charred brick staircase climbed a story high. Nearby stood a pair of apparently untouched wood bird feeders, one with seed still in it.

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

Judy Opsahl, a 64-year-old Red Cross volunteer whose home was still smoldering, said she was more worried about her neighbors than about her own loss.

''We're already starting to think about rebuilding,'' she said.

The residents of White Rock were allowed to return to their homes three days after they were evacuated in the middle of the night.

''I'm ready to go right now,'' said Agnes Finn, who shouted with joy after hearing the decision at a Red Cross shelter at Pojoaque High School. ''It's good news, but after I let out my shriek, I almost felt guilty because some of my friends had lost their homes.''

Her 8-year-old son, William, came up and asked: ''Can't we just go home?''

Throughout the day, residents gathered for church services and Mother's Day celebrations, searching for meaning in a fire that was intentionally set by the government to clear brush and grass then, fed by winds, swept across a swath of northern New Mexico.

Jacki Mang spent the morning with her four children, ranging in age from 2 to 8, at a Pojoaque shelter, where a Mother's Day turkey brunch was held for displaced families.

Her husband, Joe, was in Los Alamos helping with a database tracking the fire's damage.

She said she didn't mind not being the center of attention this Mother's Day.

''We got out of there with our lives and our kids,'' she said. ''No matter what comes of this, I have the most valuable things.''

The fire grew to 42,000 acres on Sunday, but fire officials said wind and cooler weather helped the more than 1,000 firefighters battling the blaze. They used bulldozers and other equipment to clear vegetation that could catch fire; others used helicopters and plane to dump water and fire retardant. Near White Rock, crews had cut away an eight-mile stretch of vegetation to stop the fire from spreading.

Although homes weren't in danger, residents of Abiquiu, the town that inspired painter Georgia O'Keeffe, were encouraged to leave as the fire knifed across canyons and plateaus carpeted in ponderosa, juniper and pinon.

The danger to Los Alamos and neighboring White Rock receded Friday. By that time, the fire had destroyed 260 homes and threatened the high-security Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation's most important facilities for nuclear weapons research.

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 lab complex where the atomic bomb was built in a World War II program known as the Manhattan Project. Officials said they would delay the planned reopening Monday to allow for more safety checks.

Los Alamos residents will not be allowed to return to their homes permanently until the end of the week, perhaps later, emergency officials say.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt promised residents they will have answers by Thursday about why the National Park Service started the blaze May 4 at neighboring Bandelier National Monument. Park Superintendent Roy Weaver was placed on paid leave pending an investigation, and Babbitt said all prescribed fires in the West would be put on hold for a month.

''If mistakes were made people will be held accountable, there's no question about that,'' Babbitt said Sunday on ABC's ''This Week.''

North of Los Alamos, the fire had threatened cliff dwellings considered sacred by the Santa Clara Pueblo. But crews were able to stop the flames an eighth of a mile from the visitor's center, said Calvin Tafoya, the tribal administrator.


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