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County remembers the fire

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Officials joined community members to commemorate a decade since the devastation

By Carol A. Clark

Los Alamos County’s simple, heartfelt remembrance of the day the Cerro Grande Fire entered Los Alamos 10 years ago hit just the right note with community members. The anniversary tribute held Monday around the “Touch the Sky” statue at Ashley Pond Park was fitting, having been dedicated to the community one year after the fire to symbolize hope in the town’s future.

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Both retired now, County Administrator Max Baker and Fire Chief Doug MacDonald were leading figures during and after the fire ravaged the community. They joined Fire Chief Doug Tucker, Los Alamos National Laboratory Deputy Director Ike Richardson and other officials and residents from Los Alamos and White Rock at the event.

Six members of the Los Alamos County Council also participated including Chair Michael Wismer who read a proclamation.

“Whereas on May 4, 2000, a prescribed burn was set on Cero Grande Peak in Bandelier National Monument, which grew quickly out of control, leading to the evacuation of Los Alamos at 1:01 p.m. on May 10 followed by the evacuation of White Rock at 1 a.m. on May 11,” Wismer said. “Before the fire was finally contained one month later, over 400 families in Western Area and North Community lost their homes – a devastating and defining moment for Los Alamos that will forever be burned into our memory as one of the saddest events in our history.”

Ten years later, on the anniversary of the evacuation of Los Alamos, Wismer said it was fitting to come together as a community, to unite with friends and neighbors and contemplate all that has happened as a result of the fire. Not to look back and be saddened, he said, but rather to reflect upon the amazing response and outpouring of support that came to the people of Los Alamos.

“Especially our friends in Española, Pojoaque and Santa Fe,” he said. “We will forever be grateful to those who opened their homes, churches, gymnasiums and shelters to offer us food, shelter and encouragement.”  

Wismer thanked the local, state and federal delegation in his proclamation and commended them for working long and hard on legislation that eventually became the Cero Grande Fire Assistance Act. The act provided Los Alamos with more than $100 million dollars for compensation and mitigation projects. He also recognized the Red Cross and officials from the University of California for their care and understanding during the fire and the difficult days that followed.

“On this anniversary, we especially remember and commend the firefighters of Los Alamos County, who put their heart and soul and very lives into battling the Cerro Grande Fire to try and save our community,” Wismer said. “And the police and rescue personnel who put themselves at risk in keeping our community safe; and our public works’ and utilities’ workers who dodged the flames throughout the night and the days that followed to keep our water supply operational and our streets safe for emergency vehicles.”

Wismer also remembered with gratitude the perseverance and hard work of all county employees including community services, facilities, community development and administrative services staff.

They immediately returned to work after the fire, rolled up their sleeves and set off on the long path of recovery, he said, a process that ultimately took more than six years and included managing dozens of complex projects, zoning and ordinances.

“The task of rebuilding in less than a decade is truly amazing if you think about how much work we had to accomplish,” Wismer said. “Even today, work in Los Alamos continues after the fire, volunteers continue to rebuild and repair damaged trails and to promote healthy forests through a proactive fuels mitigation and management program, so that we ensure we take every possible precaution to reduce the risk of a future event like the Cerro Grande Fire. We are grateful to our dedicated volunteers and citizens who are always willing to lend a hand – you make us proud to call Los Alamos County our home.”     

Wismer concluded his remarks by asking the crowd to observe a moment of silence in remembrance of all that was lost to the fire and all that was gained in friendship and support in the days that followed.

Jack Stewart and Mikala Bucklin, the children of county employees Kelly Stewart and Leslie Bucklin, distributed daisies to those in attendance to leave at the statue or set afloat in nearby Ashley Pond.