Los Alamos comes to grips with scale of destruction

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - Randy Foster tossed an armload of clothes in his truck, grabbed his dog and fled as the town around him was about to burn. He left behind his new motorcycle as hot ash began singeing the back of his neck.

''It was time to go,'' he said of his hasty departure Wednesday.

On Saturday, the Los Alamos police officer returned once again to what remained of his neighborhood. Walking through his yard in blue jeans soiled with ash and soot, he found the artifacts of a life lost: charred metal, blackened rubble and the skeleton of his bike, most of it melted away in an inferno that has turned 36,000 acres of northern New Mexico into a scorched no man's land.

Most frustrating was what Foster could no longer identify.

He turned over a hunk of fused metal in his hands, blackened by picking through the debris that was once his living room.

''I have no idea what this is,'' he said. Then, after a pause, it came to him. ''Oh, wait a minute, that's my VCR.''

More than a week after the National Park Service started the blaze to remove dry brush and grass, the fire that had destroyed 260 homes and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory remained dangerous.

The blaze in the nearby canyons and valleys was still only 5 percent contained. It spread in all directions Saturday, reaching Indian land. Officials were concerned that the fire might reach sacred tribal sites in the Santa Clara Canyon.

Winds picked up later Saturday, and a dry, cold front was expected Monday, bringing higher winds.

''With the fire burning in so many different directions, it will be a long time before we get this fire contained,'' said Jim Paxon, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. ''This fire will burn for weeks. This thing is growing and we don't know where it's going to end up.''

Most of the 25,000 people evacuated will not be allowed to return to their homes for at least a week, although the National Guard will begin escorting families whose homes were destroyed into Los Alamos on Sunday. Those visits will be limited: residents cannot leave the bus, emergency officials said, citing safety concerns. Most learned of their homes' fate only Friday, when a list of destroyed houses was posted on the county Web site.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has promised residents they will have answers by Thursday about why the National Park Service started the blaze at 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, although government agencies could still grant exceptions.

At a Red Cross shelter in Santa Fe, residents waited for word of the supervised visits.

A few made their way into town, past the checkpoints meant to keep them out. Others like Foster, whose jobs gave them access, trickled in to survey the devastation, which could cost $1 billion.

White ash dusted the remnants of his two-story condominium like a light spring snow, and the twisted metal resembled a junkyard more than the wreckage of a home.

Foster said working 12-hour shifts helped him keep his mind off the loss but he was still bitter over how feeble he felt in the face of a fire that seemed relentless.

Faring better was the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a key facility in the nation's nuclear weapons program that gave rise to the town.

Some trailers were burned, but the high-security, major facilities emerged unscathed. The lab planned to resume limited operations Monday, lab Director John Browne said. In a move officials described as unprecedented, the lab opened its facility to reporters Saturday, trying to allay fears that the fire damaged research and nuclear waste areas.

Months of drought in New Mexico have left the state vulnerable to outbreaks like the Los Alamos fire. Though the fire season has just begun, already more than 200,000 acres have burned - nearly four times the total for all of last year.

In southern New Mexico, a fire caused by a downed power line that had charred 20,700 acres lost momentum, and firefighters said it was 50 percent contained. The fire destroyed 14 buildings and forced 125 people from their homes in the Sacramento Mountains. The villages of Sacramento and Weed were evacuated, along with several nearby canyon enclaves.

Also Saturday, President Clinton declared the area affected by the Los Alamos fires to be a ''major disaster.'' The announcement brings federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts as well as financial relief to individuals affected by the blaze.


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