After the Fires in New Mexico

May 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

MAN: One of your porcelain dolls.

WOMAN: Completely whole.

CHILD: All right!

CHILD: Remember those?

CHILD: Hey, that was mine.

CHILD: This is mine. This is mine.

TOM BEARDEN: For the Jalbert family and their friends, it was like an archaeological dig, sifting through three feet of ashes and twisted metal, looking for anything of value.

WOMAN: That’s the old button tin. It’s an old, old mint tin, and it said, “you all know after dinner mints,” and it was my great-grandma’s sewing tin. And it’s got buttons in it. Yes, look at this, guys! I mean, this is too cool. “You all know after dinner mints.” And look at that, glass buttons. Old glass buttons. I’m so excited! Amanda, this is the one thing I really wanted to find.

TOM BEARDEN: They had lived in a building called a quad, four apartments in one structure. Now privately owned, the quads and duplexes were built by the Department of Energy back in the 1950’s to house workers at the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first nuclear bomb was built. Most of the buildings destroyed were these multi-family units. As the Jalberts searched, every so often a gust of wind would stir up a choking cloud of ashes. They wore facemasks to protect themselves from the asbestos insulation of the heating plants.

CHILD: Mom, my elephant, which is… can I keep him?

TOM BEARDEN: The family marveled at a fire so hot that even porcelain figurines were melted together.

TOM BEARDEN: You guys seem in remarkably good spirits for what’s happened to you.

LOUIE JALBERT: Yeah, we’ve… it’s good to be finding stuff. That really cheers us up. When we first saw it, it was pretty devastating. Of course, we knew what happened in advance, but once you start finding little doodads and things, and bits and pieces, it really…

DAWN JALBERT: It’s like very little bit is a gift, because you don’t really expect to find any of it.


DAWN JALBERT: It’s all a gift.

TOM BEARDEN: What’s the best thing you’ve found so far?

DAWN JALBERT: My great grandmother’s silver.

ELAINE MORRIS: The blue spruce trees my daughter-in-law planted didn’t make it.

TOM BEARDEN: Dawn Jalbert’s mother, Elaine Morris and her husband Don, lived in an adjacent unit. They pointed out how the fire had shattered a flagstone walkway, even changed the color of the soil. The Jalberts and Morrises were among more than 400 families who lost their homes as a result of what was supposed to have been a controlled burn in the nearby Bandelier National Monument. For the Morrises, the crowning irony is that an effort to stop that fire from approaching their house was actually responsible for destroying it.

ELAINE MORRIS: We understand now a backfire was set to stop the wildfire that was in progress on the other side of the ski hill. And it got out of control and it came through this area with a vengeance.

TOM BEARDEN: Does it make you angry that that fire was set intentionally?

ELAINE MORRIS: Yes, sir. It was an unnecessary happening. I wasn’t angry until I came and saw. And yes, we’re angry — not angry just about the backfire, but the initial decision to set this.

TOM BEARDEN: Even so, the Morrises and most people in Los Alamos are effusive in praising local, state, and federal officials for their help in dealing with the disaster. But there is still some anxiety about when they might expect compensation.

ORBRY WRIGHT: It’s hard to tell what was kitchen, what was living room, what was garage. It’s all one pile in the basement now.

TOM BEARDEN: Others have found help from their neighbors and friends, like Orbry and Kathie Wright.

KATHIE WRIGHT: Oh, wow. Mother will be excited to see this.

ORBRY WRIGHT: She will. Oh, wow. Must be 70 or 80 years old by now.

TOM BEARDEN: Their long-time friends, Kelly and Dave Myers, had evacuated to their parent’s house in nearby White Rock when the fire swept through Los Alamos. They decided to stay where they were, and invited the Wrights and their five daughters to move into their undamaged home in Los Alamos until they can find a new place to live.

ORBRY WRIGHT: It’s a huge burden off us. We were motel hopping and burdening various other family members that were spread out across the state. And they didn’t have quite as much room as we’re able to accommodate now, and it’s a huge help for us.

KATHIE WRIGHT: It’s been most important for the kids, because they’ve always been comfortable and happy at Kelly’s house. And this is a place they know and feel really good at, and it’s really helped for the kids.

ORBRY WRIGHT: It’s a home.


TOM BEARDEN: But not everyone has been so lucky. Celia and Kevin Granville and their infant son, Kaelan, are staying in a motel in White Rock, a few miles south of Los Alamos. Like many people who rent, they’re discovering that they don’t qualify for many of the relief programs that exist for homeowners. Mrs. Granville says she met with a representative of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, earlier this week, who filled out several forms.

CELIA GRANVILLE: Then he said it would be, like, two weeks or something before they got back with us. You know, so they might be sending us a check, but I’m not really sure.

TOM BEARDEN: Kevin Granville says he wishes the government could respond more quickly.

KEVIN GRANVILLE: It’s a struggle every day to get a car seat, to get a high chair. And we can’t just up and leave because we have nothing — kind of a stressful situation.

TOM BEARDEN: The Granvilles are looking for a new place to rent, but are finding that prices have gone up dramatically. They can’t find anything in their price range.

SPOKESPERSON: All you have to do is go to the help center.

TOM BEARDEN: At a town meeting on Monday, local resident Jan Jennings told assembled officials that there are a lot of people out there like the Granvilles.

JAN JENNINGS: These people are in their mostly dilapidated cars driving all around Los Alamos County, all around the valley, all around Santa Fe trying to find a place to live, trying to find a place to be. In a lot of cases they’re single moms with babies and so on, and they’re having a really hard time getting what we are telling them is available, aside from the $1,000 that was given out last week to the people that are uninsured.

TOM BEARDEN: At the meeting, officials told residents that plans for beginning the cleanup were nearing completion.

DAVE RIKER, Los Alamos Director of Public Works: It’s our intention for the county to take over the cleanup responsibilities to really relieve that burden from the folks who have lost homes.

TOM BEARDEN: But a lot of questions remain. Zoning laws and building codes now on the books would not allow the old quads and duplexes to be rebuilt as they were before. The same codes also prevent temporary housing on the sites.

HAL DeHAVEN: We lived at 4397 Arizona– excuse me– and I have just a few questions. First one is, you know, we plan on rebuilding. Can we park a fifth-wheel or a trailer on our lot, and will there be temporary power available for us? And I… excuse me, it’s been too much for us the last few days.

TOM BEARDEN: The answer was probably not until the debris had been scraped off, which may be several weeks away. There was also a stark warning: Prepare an emergency kit in anticipation of flooding.

CAPT. ROBERT REPASS, Los Alamos Police: That you have a three-day supply of food and water, some clothing and bedding, all that kind of good stuff ready to go. Evacuation is much less likely in a flood-type event, but we do face the possibility of having utility services cut to various portions of the town site.

TOM BEARDEN: The reason for the warning is that the heat of the fire baked the soil to the point that it is practically impervious to water. Officials are frantically trying to break up the ground in the forest watersheds above the city to restore some capacity for absorption. If the floods come, the Myers might be forced out of their temporary home.

DAVE MYERS: I work in White Rock, and they’re saying that the waters down there could be as high as 15 feet, perhaps. And you know, the afternoon thunderstorms will roll in while I’m down at my office, and we could just get wiped out in the middle of the afternoon. We’re really concerned.

TOM BEARDEN: If some permeability can’t be regained, the water from any significant rainfall is likely to roar down canyons, like this one above the city, carrying huge amounts of debris. That may carry away several key bridges, isolating parts of the city. Joe King is the county administrator.

JOE KING, Los Alamos County Administrator: We live on mesas here that are connected by very few roads. So if one of those goes, we’re in big trouble.

TOM BEARDEN: There had been concern that the fire might have stirred up radioactive material alleged to have been dumped during nuclear weapons research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. State environmental and health officials have set up a monitoring network, and have been analyzing the results. The state’s environmental director, Jim Najima, says they haven’t found anything to be concerned about.

JIM NAJIMA, Director, New Mexico Department of Environment: There have been some elevated hits of radiation that are typical for a forest fire. However, as we hold them, they degrade to what we expect. We don’t see anything that raises any alarms to us.

(Children Playing and Laughing)

TOM BEARDEN: There is also a lot of concern about the psychological impact on the children of Los Alamos. Classes resumed at the Mountain Elementary school this week, where the flames stopped just across the street. Teachers believe it’s important to return to a normal schedule. That’s why the show must go on.

STUDENT: He actually went through the war a private but we don’t like to talk about that.

STUDENT: General Bigelow.

STUDENT: Hey, speak up. You’re mumbling.

STUDENT: General Bigelow.

TOM BEARDEN: These fourth grade students were rehearsing for a play to be presented tonight. Principal Gloria Salazar-Shuttles says teachers are encouraging kids to talk about their experiences, particularly the 75 students who lost their homes.

GLORIA SALAZAR-SHUTTLES, Principal, Mountain Elementary School: They want to tell you about how they lost their stuffed teddy bear, or how their bike burned up. And you agree. I mean, you have to understand, they’re telling you, “it’s really sad. My house burned down,” and yes, it is really, truly sad. And we talk about that. You can’t… I think sometimes the tendency is to want to gloss over it, you know “yes, but look at what you have.” But a child doesn’t see what they’ve got, a child sees what they lost.

JOE KING, Los Alamos County Administrator: After a period of time, we would then go in and start the cleanup itself.

TOM BEARDEN: Joe King has a longer term worry, that a lot of people may choose to leave Los Alamos permanently.

JOE KING: As we bring people into our joint service center, we’re asking what their intentions are. And about 30% say that they’re going to leave. And we have a lot of elderly that just look at the task ahead and just say, “I just can’t go through this.” And we’re very concerned about that.

TOM BEARDEN: Even so, most agree that despite the outpouring of help from government agencies and private citizens, it will be years before many people recover, and decades before the forests above the city are restored.