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Residents' true mettle emerges from blaze

Firefighters' heroism and neighbors' generosity unites Los Alamos during fire.

Like many instances of adversity, the fires in and around Los Alamos have brought out the very best in its residents: a reminder of just what kind of strength a community can bring to those who call it home.

"I want to tell you something," says a volunteer mounted police officer giving a tour of the charred homes in the northern part of town. "There was a battalion chief in the Los Alamos fire department, and his own home was burning. But he was next door fighting a fire on his neighbor's home. Now that's heroism right there, pal."

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A drive through Los Alamos itself, along streets named after nuclear scientists and thermonuclear milestones, gives a taste of what families will see when they are allowed to return.

There is a concrete staircase that leads up to a smoldering concrete foundation, but no house. A partially melted "For Sale" sign stands in the green grass of the front yard. An untouched camping trailer rests in front of a gutted home. Cars sit in the street, gray and charred, while nearby, tricycles gleam unharmed, their plastic tassels fluttering in the wind.

"We're dealing with a situation that is real tragic," says David Gurule, manager of Los Alamos National Laboratory area offices, charged with handling the needs of displaced employees. "I myself was told twice that my house was burned down, but it's still standing." He pauses, controlling his emotions, "I was fortunate: My house was saved. Others were not."

Los Alamos is certainly not the only town in the West, or even New Mexico, to be faced with devastating forest fires. Currently, the US Forest Service, aided by local and National Guard firefighting units, is dealing with massive fires in Ruieoso and Sacramento in New Mexico, along with an out-of-control prescribed burn on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. In addition, much of the Mountain West is a tinderbox, dry from months of drought.

But the fire at Los Alamos is different because of the nature of the work that is done here. It was here in the mid-1940s that the top-secret Manhattan Project conducted the world's first nuclear-weapons tests. And it is here that nuclear-weapons research has continued long after the cold war, in labs and concrete bunkers, where in some cases the fire came as close as 50 feet.

Lab officials say the public has nothing to fear from the fires and smoke at Los Alamos, because these labs and bunkers have been designed to withstand most catastrophic events, from forest fires to the direct strike of a dive-bombing jet. Officials say the nuclear waste left over in the canyons from "legacy tests" during the 1940s and 50s, when safety standards were not as high, has shown no evidence of being released.

"I know that you are going to distrust everything that we say," says Lee McAtee, chief environmental and safety officer, at a press conference held in front of the lab's main plutonium facility. "But we are going to do everything we can to dispel that distrust."

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For most residents of Los Alamos and nearby White Rock, both of which have been evacuated, the chief concern is something closer to home, and that is home itself. At last count, the fire had consumed more than 36,000 acres of land and at least 260 homes.

The toll on firefighters thus far has been slight, limited to a single broken angle. But the intensity of the fire has not been without drama. At one point, local firefighters were completely surrounded by flames on lab territory. Rather than withdraw to safety, they fought on, and simply hunkered down under their fire-retardant clothing, letting the flames pass over them.

Most of the firefighters have been working for five days straight, says Los Alamos fire chief Doug McDonald. "If you really want to know, I try to get at least two hours sleep every 48 hours. Last night, we got five hours of sleep, so we're fresh, we're ready."

At their temporary shelter at the Pojoaque Pueblo Indian Reservation, residents of Los Alamos marvel at the sheer physical heroism of those who are defending not just nuclear labs but also hundreds of homes.

David Carroll, a materials scientist at Los Alamos, says he will always tell his children about the helicopter pilot who volunteered to fly at night below the rim of Los Alamos Canyon to drop a 1,000-gallon bucket of fire-retardant slurry on a blaze that threatened to engulf the entire town. Other residents stand in awe at the generosity of their neighbors, who have donated their money, time, talents, clothes, and food to those who have been displaced.

Consider the scene of Phyllis Gallegos and her four young sons, dragging bags of toys to the Pojoaque pueblo gymnasium. Her oldest son, Jos says he wanted to give some extra toys to the children of Los Alamos, "because they lost everything they had, and they need something to play with while they're here."

For Kim Bremer, who lost her home on the first day of the fire, the most important thing is that she has her family with her. "The biggest thing is that I got my children," she says, standing on line waiting for her mail. "We prayed to God; He saved my kids, He saved my animals. And He'll be there for us all the way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society