Los Alamos rebuilds after fire

BY SUSAN KIM | LOS ALAMOS, NM | February 20, 2001


The Rev. Ed Thomas, pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Los Alamos, described a "continual weight" hanging over his community as it recovers from the massive May 2000 wildfire.

"There's this continual weight you're carrying. Over time you learn how to adjust that weight and deal with it effectively," he said. "What

you don't realize is how tired you really are."

Thomas said he'd seen a lot of illness and death in his congregation in recent weeks. "I was talking to a nurse in the ICU ward who said there

has been more illness and death since the fire."

Some health officials cite as much as a 25 percent increase in stress-aggravated illnesses and deaths.

"Before I came here we averaged three funerals a year and I've already done three this year. I keep asking: 'Is it the level of stress?'

Everything we do is subtly affected by the weight we're carrying."

Thomas' church was the closest public building to the fire. "It burned up to our foundation and came within four feet of the parsonage."

After the entire community was evacuated with little notice, Thomas knew the whereabouts of only three families from his congregation.

"The other 199 I had no idea where they were."

Two members of Thomas' church, Leroy and Alice Horpedahl, are among the lucky ones. They broke ground on a new house Feb. 10 -- exactly nine months to the day after their home burned. They've been residents of Los Alamos for almost 50 years.

"We came from Minnesota but we've been here so long this is home," Leroy said. He worked for the lab for 36 years before he retired.

Their backyard was once forested but is now bare. "We lost 65 Ponderosa pine trees on our third-acre lot," Leroy said.

The couple is rebuilding a "totally different house. We had a two-story and we'll now have a Santa Fe-style one-story."

Everywhere residents look, mountains once covered with 400-year-old ponderosa pines are now dotted with burnt trunks. And so

everywhere people look they're reminded of their loss, even if their homes survived.

"It's a totally different environment," said Leroy. "Besides the trees, the homes are all gone and when they're rebuilt it will be a totally

different community."

But for the Horpedahls, at least the neighbors will be the same. "After the fire we quickly got together. Everyone was anxious to talk to each

other and at that time we agreed to rebuild. I'm glad we had that talk because shortly after that we couldn't find each other. We all hired the same builder.

"We have a nice, fun relationship with everyone on the street. And just about everyone is coming back. There were a couple of cases where age was a factor in people not coming back.

"I'll be 77 in a couple of months. It's tough to think about starting over but we have to do it. The church helped very much. People in general have been very thoughtful."

Construction will take six months, Leroy estimated. Since the fire, the couple has been staying with their daughter in White Rock, a

community adjacent to Los Alamos.

Last week they held a service of dedication for the new house. "That was a surprise because it was a spontaneous thing we cooked up a

week or so before it happened. Somebody called somebody else, and we had 35 people there!"

The local newspaper ran a photo of the happy group, and "behind us you could see the scarred mountainside," he said.

Rev. Thomas helped coordinate the service. "We were all out there in the mud, dear friends and neighbors. It really was a resurrection," he

said.

Another Los Alamos couple, Jean and John Elder, were visiting relatives in Iowa when their house in Los Alamos burned. "On the national

news, we saw a log cabin burning that we recognized as our next door neighbor. We saw it over and over and over," said John. "They

showed that same film clip over and over and we got so we couldn't watch it."

When their pastor called to confirm the bad news, the Elders knew they would have to start over. It was May 10, 2000. The house the retired

couple had lived in since 1975 was gone.

John worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory for 27 years, then retired and worked as a consultant. Jean was the first female school

administrator in Los Alamos.

"We went back and sifted through some ashes. But the sterling silver was all melted in a lump. We also lost a 108-year-old player piano. Just the metal soundboard was left from that. The Buick was burned. And 30-some trees on our lot," said Jean.

Since then they've been living in apartments -- first a one-bedroom then a two-bedroom. They'll rebuild a 5-bedroom, 3-bathroom home on

the lot where the destroyed house stood. "We think we'll be in it at Christmas-time," said Jean.

But things won't be the same. The trees are gone, for one thing. "The character of the lots has changed so much," she said.

And many of their neighbors won't be there anymore. "On our street, 17 homes were destroyed, and we know of seven families coming back," said John. "Neither neighbor on either side of us is coming back.

"We'll have defensible space around this house," he added, referring to the space around the perimeter of a house in which emergency officials recommend clearing vegetation or planting fire-resistant plants.

Los Alamos residents like the Elders came back after massive evacuations to discover 380 homes had burned.

Many aren't rebuilding because they just want to get away from burned houses and trees, said Jean. "They all had the where-with-all to rebuild but they wanted to just get away."

John added that the neighbors who did stay have helped each other cope. "We've had so much personal help. People were coming practically every day with either an offer or something tangible to help us out."

Jean remembered their church making a quilt and every member signing a square. A local interfaith organization, the Northern New Mexico Interfaith Recovery Network, has been helping families recover as well.

But the single-most important help the Elders said they got was from the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, the first legislation of its kind, passed to help residents recover the living standard they had before the fire. "That was the intent of Congress," said Jean. "With assistance provided through that legislation, we can rebuild. And we don't want to let Congress down."

The Elders know they'll rebuild -- but construction won't begin until mid-April. Most others haven't started to rebuild either, said the Rev.

Doug Escue, pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Santa Fe. "They feel that FEMA is being fair and generous in responding, but people are having to deal with whole neighborhoods being cleaned out and bare but nothing having been rebuilt. If they do move back, 50 percent

of their neighbors won't be there."


Related Topics:

More than 200,000 evacuate in CA

Neighbors help neighbors flee wildfire

Neighborhoods face fire rebuilding


More links on Wildfires

Advertisers:

DNN Sponsors include:

Advertisements: