From a day like any other to a scene straight out of hell

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - Amanda Wu and her daughter had just sat down to a dinner of chicken, cabbage and rice at their home in the North Mesa section of town. A few miles west, 21 firefighters climbed a 10,000-foot peak known as Cerro Grande on the edge of Bandelier National Monument.

As Mrs. Wu cleared the dishes and 7-year-old Rachel headed off to practice piano, the firefighters checked the weather forecast one last time and sent torchbearers to start a controlled burn to remove brush.

For the Wus and their neighbors in Los Alamos, it was an evening like any other. But as plates were washed, pianos played, televisions turned on and homework done, one solitary act would make it a night they would never forget.

At 7:20 p.m. on Thursday, May 4, Cerro Grande was ignited.

Six days later, the Wus would not be eating dinner at home. Hundreds would no longer have homes.

Robert Repass had gotten word the day before the fire was started that the National Park Service intended to burn 900 acres of brush at Bandelier to reduce the threat of fire in the pine forests of northern New Mexico.

As head of the Los Alamos Emergency Operations Center, Repass thought nothing of it. Intentional burns were common, and it was customary for him to be alerted in case smoke raised concern among residents.

But on May 5, around 1 p.m., his office got a new call: The fire had jumped the boundary of the controlled burn. ''Control'' had been lost.

Gusting wind had fanned the flames and carried the blaze across 35 acres outside the fire line. By 7:30 p.m., 300 acres had burned.

However, the fire remained confined to park land and the Park Service assured Repass that the blaze was contained.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, state Forestry Division spokeswoman Terri Wildermuth was out for a hike when her pager went off. She checked it and continued on, but it sounded again. And again. And again.

Wildermuth rushed home and got on the phone. Officials from southern New Mexico were calling to alert her to a blaze near Ruidoso that had been ignited by a campfire. It was burning out of control and threatening homes and property.

But the pages kept coming - this time from reporters, and the calls had nothing to do with Ruidoso. Something had gone wrong at Cerro Grande.

''It blew out!''

The words crackled across the radio at the Los Alamos Fire Department, and they were all Chief Doug MacDonald needed to hear to know something was amiss.

Shifting wind had rejuvenated the Cerro Grande blaze, spreading spot fires across a highway and into Frijoles Canyon. The Park Service called for help, and at about 1 p.m., city and county officials began closing roads and evacuating parts of Los Alamos.

Edwina Cisneros, who fled a mobile home park, could see flames up in the mountains.

''It didn't look that far away, so we were pretty scared,'' said Cisneros, a bank teller. She and her 2-year-old son, Kyle, were sent to the White Rock Baptist Church with about a dozen other evacuees.

Three air tankers and three helicopters were called in to help firefighters, but by Sunday evening 1,500 acres had been charred and residents were evacuated from about 500 homes.

''The fire just got up and ran,'' Repass said.

The 11,000 residents of Los Alamos awoke Monday to find their schools shut down and the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory - employer of 7,000 people - closed to all but essential personnel.

Some people packed up clothes and documents. Others eyed news reports about the fire or simply stepped outside to look. The horizon glowed orange. In some neighborhoods, ash clung to cars.

On the west side, the fire inched to within a mile of some homes.

But clouds, cooler temperatures and lighter wind helped firefighters slow the blaze. ''We are very confident things are going in the right direction,'' fire spokesman Jim Paxon said.

Others began demanding answers for how the fire got out of control. Bandelier Superintendent Roy Weaver took responsibility, saying he thought conditions had been right for the May 4 burn.

On Tuesday, as Los Alamos firefighters were joined by personnel from nearby Santa Fe, Espanola, Santa Clara, Jemez and Cochiti, schools and the nuclear lab remained closed.

By nightfall Tuesday, more than 3,000 acres had burned, but officials estimated the blaze was 20 percent contained.

Laura Kelly, a budget analyst at the lab, saw the latest report on the 10 o'clock news and went to bed feeling relieved. ''It seemed like they really had everything under control.''

On Wednesday morning, the fire was simply part of the landscape and routine of Los Alamos. Firefighters were back on the line. Schools and the lab were still closed.

Amanda Wu's husband, Liangtsan, back in town from a business trip, went to work as usual at a private research company where he is a scientist. Their daughter went to Santa Fe for the day with friends, so Amanda met her husband at noon for lunch.

On their walk to Subway, the stench of smoke filled their nostrils.

While they ate, county and laboratory officials gathered for a news conference, but the briefing was interrupted when lab official Dick Burick got a phone call: The fire had jumped containment lines and entered Los Alamos Canyon, eating its way through pine trees on its way toward town.

''It's a whole new ball game,'' Burick said.

Shortly after 1 p.m., the evacuation of Los Alamos began. Police and fire officials went door to door urging people to leave. Gas was shut off to parts of town.

Amanda Wu got in her car and joined the stream of people heading out. It took her an hour to reach a friend's house in White Rock, usually a 15-minute drive south. Her husband joined her that evening.

Shelters sprang up across northern New Mexico. Inside the Bingo Hall at Cities of Gold Casino in nearby Pojoaque, Red Cross workers stacked sandwiches and bottled water for evacuees. A table was covered with notes from strangers offering their homes to those forced to flee. Santa Fe merchants called radio stations to pledge donations of money and food.

By shortly after 5 p.m., the town of Los Alamos was deserted except for firefighters and police.

Repass had estimated it would take 10 hours to complete the evacuation - it was done in about four.

''Thank God,'' he said, ''because we turned around and structures were burning.''

At 10:30 p.m., Peter Dybing stood on Sycamore Street watching his fellow firefighters spray water on one house while the one next door was ablaze. ''Please let us save one house tonight,'' he implored.

At 2 a.m., battalion commander Don Shainin and his crew stood by helplessly watching another house collapse into ashes on Ridgeway Drive. ''I can't believe how many homes are gone,'' Shainin said.

The fire had exploded from 3,700 acres to 18,000 in a matter of hours. Shortly after 1 a.m., the town of White Rock, along with the Wu family, was evacuated as the fire crept still closer.

''We were 20 percent contained. Today we're zero percent contained,'' fire spokesman Paxon said Thursday as daybreak revealed the extent of the destruction. ''We're starting over.''

At that point, officials said at least 100 homes had been destroyed, primarily on the west and north sides of town. By the end of the day, they said the count was 260 homes, and 33,000 acres blackened.

Government officials, from Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to the state's two U.S. senators and the chief of the Forest Service, arrived to tour the devastation, while residents were kept from their homes and forced to turn to television news footage to see if their homes were among those destroyed.

Officials launched an investigation into what went wrong and Weaver, the Bandelier superintendent, was placed on leave.

By week's end, the worst seemed to be over. Although the fire continued to grow, and still another raged near Cloudcroft, N.M., temperatures had cooled in Los Alamos and the wind had died down.

''I can say with a high degree of confidence that we will not have more structures burned in Los Alamos,'' Fire Chief MacDonald said Friday.

Federal officials imposed a 30-day moratorium on prescribed fires across the West.

Townspeople were told to plan to remain in shelters for at least a week. There was no telling when they could return even temporarily, but officials did issue a list of addresses of the homes destroyed.

Dick and Judy Opsahl, retirees who moved from New York's Long Island to Los Alamos a year ago, learned they would never again have dinner at their home.

The Wu family one day would.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Pauline Arrillaga is the AP's Southwest regional writer, based in Phoenix.


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