Five years after the horrific Cerro Grande fire, the people of Los Alamos, and some of their surroundings, have slowly returned to life

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

LOS ALAMOS – Less than a week after a runaway forest fire shredded their hilltop home, Sue and Stan Bodenstein stood in an Albuquerque Wal-Mart parking lot with a list of things they would need to start restocking their lives.

“I turned to Stan and hugged him and said, ‘After 32 years of marriage, we’re starting from scratch,’ because the first thing on the list was underwear,” said Sue Bodenstein, a retired travel agent.

As the couple began to rebuild their world with material goods, they also needed a supply of intangibles, like patience and humor — qualities they would need while waiting for their house on Arizona Street to again be a home.

The Bodensteins and more than 200 other families whose lives were scorched by the Cerro Grande Fire five years ago this week were about to learn that getting back to normal involved more than merely reconstructing their physical location.

A big part of building anew after losing everything has meant reclaiming a positive attitude amid the shock.

“We’ve got a nice house now,” Stan Bodenstein said. “We had a nice house before. It wasn’t easy from there to here. But the negative things we’ve just kind of shoved off to the side.”

On May 10, 2000, the most expensive fire in the Southwest’s history roared into this town, gulped down homes, incinerated wildlife habitat and chewed holes through parts of Los Alamos County’s utilities system.

It burned almost 8,000 acres of property owned by Los Alamos National Laboratory for a time threatening the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

The Cerro Grande also ate more than 47,000 acres of ponderosa pine, aspen and oak, and it displaced hundreds of people for months.

But the unbelievably hot flames also brought together the people of Los Alamos in a way some say nothing else could have.

“We are a lot closer because of everything that happened,” Sue Bodenstein said. “Where you had superficial friendships, you’ve gotten to know people a lot better.”

Today, half a decade since New Mexico’s smallest county became the site of the state’s biggest disaster, most houses on Arizona Street once the stark epitome of what an unleashed inferno can do to serene, picturesque neighborhood have been rebuilt.

Others are in various stages of building. Modern adobe and brick mark progress along streets that are slippery with mud because underground utilities are still being fixed.

But the blackened, brittle pine trees that loom from the ridge along the street are reminders of the lessons learned.

***

Above the rebuilding, above Arizona and Yucca streets, the once-majestic slopes of Los Alamos are charred and stripped, looking like a bomb blew through instead of a fire.

That sight makes Los Alamos County’s fire chief, Douglas MacDonald, sick.

“When I look at the mountain, I see the burned hill and I get ill every day,” he said. “I look at the issues our community has suffered every day, the people leaving, the streets torn up.”

MacDonald, who oversees a department of 117 firefighters, said the Cerro Grande Fire left a mixed bag of emotions and results in its wake.

On one hand, his department was able to buy a new fleet.

“(But) I don’t think the good is even close to the bad,” he said. “I don’t think having a new house outweighs all that.”

Apart from residents who have seen their neighborhoods upended, MacDonald lamented the fact that the Los Alamos reservoir, a popular recreation area for hiking and fishing, remains closed to the public, because it is unstable.

“We lost a pristine family reservoir that doesn’t look like it’s going to open for four or five years,” he said.

As the fire subsided and residents were able to see its destruction, many lashed out at the National Park Service for allowing a controlled burn on a windy May day. They said they were frustrated by forest management policies that let the woods grow into perfect fuel for the fire. To this day, many say it was clear the forests were too thick; that they would burn; that no one did anything about it.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited Santa Fe and accepted government responsibility for the fire. And there has been a cost: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid more than $546 million in claims to individuals, businesses and government agencies through the end of April. Four claim cases are pending, said FEMA spokesman David Passey.

FEMA spent $23 million on emergency services, replacing infrastructure and putting residents up in temporary housing. Federal officials reconsidered the Wildland Fire Management Policy and urged residents to put a “defensible space” between their new homes and the forest, an area called the “urban-wildland interface.”

The Bodensteins, however, were familiar with those terms and had a xeriscaped lawn with gravel, hoping to ward off flames. The Cerro Grande was too hot, too big, too fast.

And the town the residents Los Alamos evacuated that day was nothing like the place to which they would return.

***

Less than a mile from the Bodensteins, Dwey Molleur’s recollection of that warm spring day is quite different. The Cerro Grande, which randomly hopscotched over some houses, left only burned spots on his Woodland Road roof.

It took Molleur, a retired welder, five days to find out his simple, single-story white house was among the saved.

After the fire, he spent 10 days in Albuquerque and lost two refrigerators full of food he had filled just before relatives were set to visit.

“We just thank God every day,” he said. “We thank the firemen.”

The location of Molleur’s house, a block in from the forest instead of up against it like the homes on Arizona Street, could have meant its demise. But it also could have led to its salvation.

His house is one block closer to Los Alamos Fire Station No. 4, about a mile away.

Firefighters at the station are close enough to see from their kitchen window the same burned ridges that border Arizona Street.

Like other residents, each firefighter at the station has memories of the two weeks straight many spent taking stabs at the orange monster.

Capt. Justin Grider remembers sleeping one night on a concrete floor and using a roll of paper towels for a pillow. Another firefighter slept on the gurney of an unused ambulance. Many went without seeing their families for days, all while fighting the fire that seemed like it would never die.

All interviewed recently said they were more than glad to do it.

And the firefighters remarked how amazing it was no one died that day.

The help the firefighters provided started a loop of other assistance, with residents and people from throughout the state giving them what they could; massages, water, meals, encouragement, a place to sleep, a thank-you.

A few residents who lost their homes were angry with firefighters for not doing more. But firefighters said the majority of people gave them accolades for their efforts.

Some firefighters lamented the fact they couldn’t do more and spoke of how hard it was to stand and watch houses fall apart at the hand of the flames.

Others still marvel at the sheer size of the Cerro Grande.

“You got a career’s worth of firefighting in two weeks,” firefighter Steve Dawald said.

***

Before the Bodensteins’ lot could be built on again, the past had to be taken away.
Clearing out their old home started with days and nights of meetings with federal and county government officials, and appointments with insurance adjusters.

One of the hardest parts of losing a lifetime of memories was creating what came to be known as the Contents List, the Bodensteins said. Their insurance company needed an inventory of what the family once owned in order to calculate what would be covered and how much money they would get.

“I went around the rooms mentally and started opening drawers and looking in them,” Sue Bodenstein said. “And then it was like a weight was lifted.”

Thinking about all that had been lost also became a turning point, the pair said.

“I think it was a way of saying goodbye,” she said.

And they moved on.

Eventually, they’d have to give county officials the final OK to tear down their chimney –the only really recognizable part left of their home — and allow construction equipment to bite up what was once their foundation.

But before that, they had to sort one last time through the rubble of their memories, another part of detaching themselves from the things they and their two adult children once owned.

Stan Bodenstein, an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he became fascinated with finding things, no matter the condition.

In many ways, seeing bits of his life for the last time was a form of closure.

“You end up having a drive to find stuff,” he said. “But once you find it, you look at it, it’s totally useless, and you can just chuck it.”

Amid the rubble, there was the family’s entire nativity set, blackened but there. A cup with what Stan Bodenstein guesses is the glass from a wine bottle melted on it. A few ounces of what once was a 10-pound bronze bell. Several pieces of pottery in good shape apparently because they had been fired by the potter. A silver Nambe serving platter, twisted into what looks like molten sea coral.

Sue’s childhood Christmas stocking was there, too, charred and torn but mostly, unbelievably, intact.

While the Cerro Grande was hot enough to lick all the color off what it didn’t destroy, one item lay there with all of its color: an angel Sue’s mom had given her years before.

The family has put some of what they salvaged on display in their living room, a testament to the fire’s power and to the past.

Although the couple cling to those reminders, Sue said she learned that life and friendship are more valuable than any one thing.

“It’s like, all of a sudden, what’s really important is brought into focus. The material stuff, it’s just stuff.”

Published May 6, 2005.