Tom Geelan remembers the fire growing bigger by the day. Local officials told Los Alamos residents not to worry, that the fire, set on May 4, 2000, on Cerro Grande Peak by the National Park Service as a prescribed burn, could be contained. However, as the black smoke billowed closer, Geelan sensed that things in his quiet North Community neighborhood were about to change. “They seemed to think it was under control … but you could see it getting larger and larger,” the 81-year-old Los Alamos National Laboratory retiree recalled. He then motioned toward the back of his Yucca Street home where stark, black trees fill the distance. At 1:01 p.m., May 10, 2000, the entire town of Los Alamos was evacuated when the fire breached Los Alamos Canyon and entered the city’s western perimeter. Fueled by an overly dense woodland, high winds and drought, the blaze burned more than 40,000 acres and more than 200 structures, including 39 structures owned by the national laboratory. More than 400 families, including Geelan’s, lost their homes in the fire, which burned so hot that only the concrete foundations of many buildings survived. The fire’s impact reached far beyond the borders of the small mountain town. It was among several wildfires that year that triggered a review of the federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. Five years after the Cerro Grande Fire, reminders of the inferno abound daily. Road and utilities reconstruction is continuing and new homes continue to go up. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nearly $181 million was paid in individual claims to some 15,000 residents for fire-related damage claims and the replacement of homes and personal belongings through the Cerro Grande Fire Assistance Act, signed by President Bill Clinton. More than $123 million was given to the county government and $56 million to local businesses, not including $23 million in federal disaster declaration funds for infrastructure and individual assistance money. Although many residents say they were compensated fairly, it wasn’t easy.
Getting compensated Marco Lucero and his family, like many, had difficulty with their insurance adjuster and with processing their claim. Only part of trouble was having to document everything they lost in painstaking detail and put a fair market value on each item. Lucero said it took two years to complete his claim, but he couldn’t comment because some aspects are still being discussed. Four unsettled cases remain, with two scheduled for arbitration and two in district court, according to FEMA spokesman David Passey. The post-fire flow of money into the community has helped rebuild the town, but at the same time, it’s hampered the county’s budget. The County Council is planning for a significant budget deficit, expected because of abnormal growth in taxable gross receipts over the last five years that are now in decline. Post-fire construction inflated annual GRT revenues from $49 million in 1999 to more than $280 million in 2004. Between now and 2008, revenues are expected to return to normal levels, which will likely not be sufficient to pay for existing services. Indirectly, the influx also has had a negative impact on neighborly relations, according to Los Alamos County residents. Locals acknowledge that resentment has grown between those who were handsomely compensated and built new homes and those whose houses survived, although no one interviewed by the Journal would admit to having those feelings. “I’ve heard people say there are hard feelings,” Alice Horpedahl said. “I’m sure there are also still so many people who are just so angry with the fire that they can’t get on with their lives.” “To stop and think it’s been five years is hard to believe,” she said.
Rebuilding Horpedahl and her husband LeRoy lost their government-built Arizona Street home, a blue two-story with white trim. They rebuilt a striking Santa Fe-style adobe with archways, skylights and Alice’s “dream kitchen” at the same location. Many significantly larger and more elaborate houses have appeared on the lots where old, barracks-style structures built by the federal government once stood. Some folks say they miss the simplicity of their former neighborhoods, once lined with boxy, shingle-sided homes and now taken over by comparably lavish buildings. Houses that frequently come up in conversation are two round houses being built on North Road and a bright purple home and the one with twin watchtowers in the back, both in the Arizona Street area. It’s not just the new houses that are difficult to get used to, but the new neighbors as well. “A lot of people who lived here are now in different areas,” Geelan said. “… (M)any people say, well you got a new house, so things are better than they were before, but it’s hard to make friends when you get older and adjust to a new neighborhood and new things.” In contrast, Sue and Stan Bodenstein, who live on Arizona Street, said the fact that many of their neighbors rebuilt on the same lots has made the adjustment to post-fire life much easier. The couple say they actually know their neighbors better now than before the fire. “We feel very fortunate,” Sue Bodenstein explained. “We started having wine and cheese parties as a neighborhood and now when you say ‘Hello’ to your neighbors you really mean it.” The Bodensteins also have made an effort to not separate pre- and post-fire life, but combine the two. A black charred nativity set, a teacup with a salt shaker melted onto it and a carbonized Christmas stocking from Sue’s childhood are among the salvaged fire remains showcased in their new duplex. Friends and family also have sent them pictures and mementos from the past to add some history to the house, making it feel less sterile.
Finding good “A lot of good came out of the fire,” Sue Bodenstein said. “All the love that came out from neighbors, the town, the state. It’s not the material things that are most important. You have to look beyond what was taken away.” “You can’t focus on the negative if you’re going to move forward,” her husband, Stan, added. No one could agree more than Don Oschwald. If it hadn’t been for the fire, he might not have met Kathleen, whom he affectionately calls his “little sweetheart wife.” Don, 81, and Kathleen, 59, met in FEMAville, the temporary housing established on North Mesa for more than 100 residents who lost their homes. The couple met at the mail box of the trailer village in late summer of 2000. At the time, the feeling in their hearts seemed foreign. Don was still grieving for his first wife, Virginia, who had died in 1999, and Kathleen’s parents had also died not long before. “I just remember this warm feeling happened when I met her,” Don Oschwald said. “I felt like my prayers were answered.” Shortly after the first meeting, they started having dinner together and on Dec. 3, 2000, they were engaged. Almost four years into the marriage, the couple still refer to their Sandia Loop home, built after the fire, as their “honeymoon cottage.” Adjusting to life after Cerro Grande hasn’t always been easy, Kathleen Oschwald admitted, but there’s no sense in clinging to what used to be. “There are days when I look for things that were in my old house and then realize it’s not there any longer, but you can’t stay stuck in the past. You must let it go,” she said. “The fire is part of our story and a larger story that something good can come out of a tragedy. This fire pulled us together.” In front of the Oschwalds’ house lies a large wooden sign that reads “Phoenix.” Much like the mythological bird, the Oschwalds’ home appears to have truly risen from the ashes.