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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories running through Sunday when the Monitor is dedicating a special edition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Cerro Grande Fire and the opportunities that exist for the community into the next decade.
In October of 1969, Jerry, my husband, and I moved to Los Alamos. There have been many changes before Jerry retired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in March 2002. I can easily remember when TG&Y, the local variety store, was located where Central Avenue Grill now stands.
The bowling alley was right next to the movie theater in the Community Center; now named Central Park Square. I don’t miss the traffic lights changing on Omega Bridge in accordance to the flow of traffic – it was interesting to be in the middle of the bridge when the lights changed.
I do miss some of the old Los Alamos before the Cerro Grande Fire changed the scenery and the town. Almost 10 years ago, I read in the Los Alamos Monitor that Bandelier National Monument was starting a controlled burn on May 4, 2000. My thought was how could a controlled burn be prescribed when May is hot, dry and windy?
The controlled burn became the Cerro Grande Fire that raged into Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory; destroying our homes, displacing our community of approximately 20,000 people and causing irreplaceable damage. The total cost of the fire was $1 billion dollars.
After dark on May 6, the neighbors, Jerry and I stood on the sidewalk in front of our homes on Bryce Street in White Rock. Looking west we saw the Cerro Grande Fire burn across the mountains. This image remains a permanent memory of pure fear. I knew the ground cover in the forest was super dry and the pine needles were ready to ignite. I also knew the wind was fanning the flames.
On Sunday May 7, my husband and I decided to see what was happening in the Los Alamos townsite, As we drove west on Pajarito Road, I could easily see the smoke from the fire and there was more smoke than I expected.
Arriving at the Los Alamos High School football field, we joined many other community people who were watching the fire burn just behind it. Then I realized the first feelings of shock, disbelief and the reality that the fire was totally out of control and would burn into our town.
At that time, I did not know the fire would eventually consume 400 homes, displacing an undisclosed number of people and closing the Los Alamos National Laboratory for two weeks.
The evacuation of Western Area began that day. By Wednesday, Townsite, Northern Area, Barranca Mesa and North Mesa were evacuated. As far as I know, the evacuation of Western Area was smooth, many of the people evacuated to White Rock. It was broad daylight and people were ready to leave.
In White Rock, a common sight was people driving their vehicles and towing a boat full of their precious things. The look on the faces of the people shopping in Smiths, the local grocery store, was disheartening. I could see the stress and fear of the unknown.
When the rest of Los Alamos was evacuated, chaos and commotion filled the community.