View of Mitchell Trail Area from LA Mountain, 1997
Ten years ago I watched what started as a narrow plume of smoke on the mountain of Cerro Grande transform into a firestorm of intensity and power. My life, and the lives of my family and many friends, transformed as we saw the remains of our homes and our belongings turned into nothing more than ashes blowing around in the wind.
4007 Arizona Ave. May 2000
I learned a lot about instincts, love, family, and loss, and I endured countless hours of frustration, exhaustion, and helplessness.
But those are not the things I care to focus on now that ten years--an entire decade--have passed since the Cerro Grande Fire of May 2000. I find myself musing more about the paths not taken, about the choices made or not, and about where I might have been if this massive fire had not impacted my life.
At the dawn of a new millennium, a new century,a new decade, and a new year, the entire world seemed caught up in Y2K frenzy. I didn’t believe it, but I stashed a couple gallons of water just in case. By April, the Y2K frenzy had fizzled into nothing. Life went on as normal. I was working as an environmental consultant, and I worked outside collecting water and sediment samples and data from Canyon de Valle at Technical Area (TA) 16 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. We collected our samples every Friday. By April, it was becoming evident that a pretty serious drought was already in effect. There had been only traces of snow throughout the winter, and the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area hadn’t even opened for business. As my team member, Donna, and I hiked up and down the canyon that spring, the pine needles crunched underfoot, and the wildflowers seemed sparse.
Our position at TA-16 afforded us the opportunity to see the first plume of smoke rising into the clear, blue sky on the Friday morning of May 4, 2000. All of the team members I worked with watched in astonishment as the plume rose higher, circling its gray arms above the Jemez ridgeline. We knew the conditions outside as we’d been outside all winter. The lack of snow had enabled a more productive field season and created a tinderbox out of the forests. “What are they thinking?” we all asked upon hearing that a controlled burn had been lit on Bandelier National Monument Property. We rolled our eyes, and got back to work.
On Saturday, May 5th, Scott and I, having recently discovered an interest in fly-fishing, thought we would take our dogs up into the Jemez to try our hand on a Jemez river. We were turned around before the Pajarito Ski Hill turn off—firefighters told us that the fire was burning on both sides of State Road 4 along the Western boundary of Bandelier. We decided to go to the Los Alamos Reservoir instead, not realizing that it would be the last time we’d see the reservoir intact and healthy. While there, the plume of smoke ballooned into a cumulonimbus of monstrous size. Upon returning home, we went next door to Scott’s parents’ house, and began filming the air tankers and spotter planes as they circled over our house to drop water on the fire that was obviously careening out of control. That was when we all started feeling a bit nervous about the situation.
Spotter Plane Flying Immediately Over 4007 Arizona Ave. May 5, 2000
Tanker 27 Flying Immediately over 4007 Arizona Ave. May 6, 2000
Tanker 27 Before Unloading May 6, 2000. (In very center of photo)
Sunday, remarkably, the flames had calmed down, and it seemed like maybe the situation was under control. Monday, while working, we were evacuated from TA-16, the Western Area portion of Los Alamos was also evacuated, and residents of that part of town scrambled to find places to stay while shut out of their own homes. Tuesday was spent in the office and everyone seemed a little antsy. Wednesday evening, May 9th, Scott and I made plans to go fishing in the Pecos while my Toyota truck was being serviced in Santa Fe. We made plans with a friend to meet us there, and thought we’d finish up with dinner and margaritas at Gabriel’s on the way home.
Overnight, the winds were howling out of control. Unable to sleep due to the thrashing of the Ponderosa’s outside my window, I began to feel real discomfort creeping into my bones. Upon daybreak I told Scott that I didn’t feel comfortable leaving town, and I cancelled my service appt. I went to the office, and Scott and Jan and Jerry, went to our retail shop, The DOME, that we ran together in the Hilltop Shopping Center on Arkansas. At 10am, I couldn’t take work anymore. Everyone seemed very non-chalant, and I felt truly unsettled. I didn’t like the denial that everyone seemed to be in, so I left and went to the shop. At 11:30 I offered to get all of us lunch, and when I drove up-town I could see that the fire was once again ballooning into a monstrous demon. I picked up our lunch at the Hill Diner, and drove back to the shop. On my way back I noticed that every single street and parking lot had a sheriff, policeman, or State Trooper parked in front of it. As I pulled into our parking lot, a State Trooper was sitting in his black cruiser blocking the exit. I went over to him and asked, “Are we being evacuated?” “Not yet,” was his answer. I went into the shop with our food and told everyone what he’d said. We immediately closed down the shop and went to our houses a couple blocks away. I don’t remember if we ever even ate.
Those orange-red spots to the left of the electrical poles are 150-ft flames crossing Pipeline Road. May 10, 2000.
Flames on Pipeline Road. We'd been told to evacuate over 30 minutes prior to this. May 10, 2000.
Looking West to LA Mountain/Pipeline Road from Arizona Ave. The black smoke seen after the huge flames. May 10, 2000
Within minutes of arriving at the house, firemen started driving the streets with their sirens and a loud speaker declaring the evacuation. We were told we had 10-minutes to pack up our belongings and leave. We stayed for about an hour, filming the fire, taking pictures, and packing up random belongings. Instead of throwing all our artwork, or journals, or rare vinyl into boxes, I packed up the stupid Playstation and a few games. We took one bike each. We grabbed our climbing and camping gear thinking we may end up going on a climbing trip if we couldn’t get back into town for a couple days. I packed a bag of random clothes, but nothing that I really cared for. At one point Scott asked if he should take some drums. I said, take a few if they fit. He took his bass drum and a snare. When we left, I locked our door and said, “good bye house.” A burning ember landed on Scott’s arm and created a blister.
This was the last picture Scott took of the sun before we left and as a burning ember landed on his arm. May 10, 2000
Jan, Jerry, Jan’s Mother Betty, and Jan’s brother Uncle Danne, decided to stay a bit longer to pack stuff up. But of course, they did not pack up their hundreds of pieces of original artwork, or the valuable antiques, or priceless mementos. They took another random smattering of stuff. And they took a lot more pictures. The firemen came again, and told them they had to go, houses on Alabama were burning.
A snapshot of Boghee as we were driving away. The dogs were stressed out too. May 10, 2000
Scott and I drove through Rendija Canyon, and Jan and Jerry who’d left nearly 40 minutes after we did, went down the Main Hill road. They beat us to El Rancho. We gathered at my parents’ house. Ironically, my parents had been living in Carlsbad, NM for the previous two years. My Father was driving home that same day--just in time for Scott and me, our two dogs, Jan and Jerry, Uncle Danne, and Scott’s Grandma Betty to descend upon them due to evacuation. The timing couldn’t have been more weird. That night we watched homes on Ridgeway and in Western Area burning through the lens of the TV.
Looking at the Jemez from El Rancho. May 10, 2000
I don’t remember sleeping, but I do remember telling Scott at about 2 in the morning, “I think it’s gone.”
Looking East to Arizona Ave. The foundations of our neighborhood. May 11, 2000
(Photo Courtesy of PD-USGOV-DOE)
(Photo Courtesy of PD-USGOV-DOE)
At 6:20 in the morning my dear friend Josie called and said, “I think I see your foundation on the news.” Sure enough, we turned to Channel 7, and there it was. The first thought in my head was, “what am I supposed to do about all the bills that were sitting on my table?” and my second thought was, “I want to have kids.”
A few nights later, after feeling really weird about being without a home, and still living in a sort of unsettled fog of uncertainty, Scott and his family went to visit a good friend who also lived in El Rancho. Despite the darkness, I decided to take a walk with my dogs up in the Barrancas. After nearly a mile, I crested a hill and sat down and watched the flames smoldering along the Jemez. The entire Jemez view was glowing behind a smoky apparition. Hot spots were everywhere and the smoke clung the mountains like a blanket. Finally, the vastness of my reality set in and I was able to cry long and hard. My dogs stood on either side of me and licked my tears. Being able to cry deeply was the first step towards rebuilding.
Wildfire would not be my first choice in leading to a more comfortable home. But that is the turn taken on our road of life. And things did work out. Our neighbor sold us his property for pennies, and we had a half acre to call our own.
Looking West to LA Mountain in April 2001.
I could not have predicted what lay before us in the rebuilding process. I had no idea how many hundreds of hours I would spend documenting all the possessions we lost, how much alcohol I would consume, how many frustrations we would encounter along the path forward. But now, 10-years later, it all seems to have faded into the dusty recesses of my mind. We plodded forward. We built our own house, we had children. One of our children was born in our new home. The forests have changed. The majority of the remaining trees were either killed by bark beetles or blew down in the winds. Ponderosas planted have started really growing. The drainages have widened or deepened and turned into vast alluvial beds.
Looking West From the Mitchell Trail Head. April 29, 2010.
LA Mountain and the Mitchell/Perimeter Intersection. April 2010
The anniversary of a catastrophic event is a strange thing. I can look out my window, see the vast beauty of this amazing location where I live, see the aspens we’ve planted shivering with their new spring leaves, and know that fire is yet another cycle, human-caused or not. I can look back and see that we made choices in the last 10 years that enabled us to rebuild our home and settle back into normalcy pretty quickly. There are choices I wish I’d made. There are things we should have done.
How will life look to the next ten years? It’s nearly impossible to know. In another 10 years, my oldest will be 18 and I will be 49. Who knows what kinds of twists and turns our lives will take over the next decade. It should be an interesting ride.