Anniversaries…of sorts

Into the eighth week of stay-at-home orders for the state of New Mexico. That is an anniversary of sorts. Across the country, over 1,250,000 Americans have been infected and sadly, over 80,000 have died. In addition, possibly 1 in 5 Americans have lost their jobs in an economic disaster that might rival the Great Depression.

Thankfully I have been able to work from home. The kids are here and continue to do schoolwork on line (they have been out of school for almost as long and classes for the rest of this school year have been cancelled). Horse riding and games over the internet occupy much of the time in the days under the stay-at-home orders.. Retirement funds and college funds are plunging. How do we recover from this deep economic disaster that is at least a recession? Another anniversary of sorts? The last recession was over a decade ago.

For those of us who have lived here for the past 30 years, there is a another significant anniversary on our minds this week. It has been 20 years since the Cerro Grande Fire.

Overlooking a mesa in Los Alamos during the Cerro Grande Fire.

What started as a controlled burn by the US Forest Services on May 4th quickly engulfed over 120,000 acres before it was extinguished in late July. The location, Cerro Grande, is a hill in the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos. The fire resulted in the destruction of over 200 homes, and caused the evacuation of over 20,000 people.

I personally have had to evacuate my home twice over the past 30 years for forest fires. In 2000 for Cerro Grande Fire and again in 2010 for the Las Conchas Fires. For Cerro Grande, it was actually two evacuations: one from Los Alamos to White Rock and the other from White Rock to Nambe. Interestingly enough, if you read the EIS (environmental impact statement for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, it identifies the risk for a significant forest fire here with a frequency of about 1 per decade.

I was fortunate. Lost some time from work. Lost some food that spoiled in my refrigerator because the power was off for the week. The time of the evacuation, from May 10 until May 20, time stood still in my mind. I have the vivid recollection of bumper-to-bumper traffic on Diamond Drive, trying to get out of town. Glancing to my right, I could see that the flames were obviously traveling above the town past pipeline road. The shear magnitude of the fire, which for days was smoke, hit with the bright orange flames. I had my critical belongings in my Jeep. Things of value. What constituted the valuables of my entire 39 years of existence was stuffed in boxes in this vehicle. It kinda looked like this…

evacuating Los Alamos kind of looked like this

Luckily for me, our house was spared. I had several friends who were not so lucky. The shear magnitude of houses turned to dust in a relatively short period of time has not escaped me.

Burning houses in Los Alamos.

I remember getting to White Rock, the first stop in the evacuation. Drinking wine and seeing pictures like the above photo on live TV. It was unbelievable.

Aftermath of the destruction on Arizona Avenue
FEMA_-3510-_Photograph_by_Andrea_Booher_taken_on_05-04-2000_in_New_Mexico

As you can see in the photo above, some houses were destroyed. But some were completely bypassed. Several streets, especially those boarding against the forest were reduced to ash. Other houses, some blocks away, also burned because of the blowing embers. In May, the winds tend to pick up in the morning and evening.

Cerro-Grande-wildfire-as-it-approached-Los-Alamos-NM-in-2000.
Part of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the foreground.

The fire burned close to the lab site. Some smaller buildings were burned. The large facilities where radioactive materials, explosives and other items, were not touched.

Rebirth and recovery above Los Alamos.

Above Los Alamos, near the ski hill (I think), two to three years after the fire.

Cerro Grande years after the fire.

Anniversaries happen often. Many anniversaries are tied to good things. Friends, family, special events. Other anniversaries can be associated with bad things. Death, fire, a pandemic. But even with the bad, good rises out of the ashes. Words cannot convey this event in my life. It is a marker, one of many, that we experience in all life has to offer. I can recall many in my life. Some I have written about in the pages here, in other articles. Others remain for the right reason to become words in the TheMcKeeSpot.

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