By SHARON SNYDER
Los Alamos Historical Society
SPRING! The season of lawn’s greening, flowers blooming, and — WIND!
A year ago this past March our area experienced high winds that felled large trees and blocked roadways in the Jemez, prompting danger warnings. As many as 100 trees were brought down in forested areas between the back gate and the Valles Caldera.
Most of us had never seen that kind of wind damage in the region of Los Alamos, but it wasn’t the first time that such a weather event has happened here.
On April 23, 1942, the Pajarito Plateau region saw extensive damage to buildings as well as tall trees in forested areas. Three Los Alamos Ranch School (LARS) students left accounts of the storm they experienced.
Allen Church, son of LARS master Fermor Church and his wife, Peggy, dubbed the event The Big Wind and remember the frightening details more than six decades later. Allen’s brother Ted added details to a report written the day after the storm by a fellow student.
On April 24, Ben Raskob, a young man from the eastern shores of Maryland, wrote, “Last night the wind that had been blowing all day died out about 10 p.m. A few snow flurries came and went during the evening. Sometime early this morning another wind started, coming down off the mountains west of the school. By 6:30 a.m. the wind was picking up velocity and during exercises at 7:45 it continued to blow harder. During breakfast it was reaching its peak.”
At breakfast, the boys became aware of possible danger when a master left to move his car out of the garage because there was a possibility of trees falling on the structure. After breakfast around 8:30 a.m., Ben reported leaving the Lodge and running with some difficulty to Spruce Cottage.
“Once inside I stood on the front sleeping porch and in about a fifteen minutes time saw over fifty trees fall.”
He went on to say that some of the trees hit houses and other blocked the roads. The electricity was cut off to the power plant, and telephone service went out.
“We attended classes,” he added, “being instructed not to go outside unless it was necessary.”
The District School had been let out to avoid endangering the younger children who resided on the mesa. Their school building was surrounded by tall trees, and one did crash into it around 10 a.m. Virginia Wirth, wife of LARS master Cecil Wirth, and her two little sons were evacuated from their home on the road that would eventually become Bathtub Row.
Ben reported that the students “soon discovered that another danger came from the tiles on rooftops as they blew off.”
The students were warned not to walk in front of such buildings! The wind became strong enough that dirt and branches flew through the air.
By noon the wind died down, but 240 large yellow pines had been uprooted. The details are so well preserved because Ben Raskob was sent out to make a report on the area. After a careful study of the storm, it was noted that the winds came down Los Alamos Canyon and spread out over the mesa, losing much of its strength. Only about two square miles of the mesa were heavily damaged, but about 75 percent of the yellow pines were blown over within the area.
“The woodcutters will be cutting wood for many days,” Ben noted in his report.
Ted Church remembered the storm from the perspective of several decades gone by.
“If I recall correctly,” he noted, “the weather ahead of that blow-down was extremely wet, which helped loosen the soil around the yellow pines. The yellow pine has a particularly shallow tap root, but its feeder roots spread out just below the surface of the ground. When the wind blows one of those trees over, a large shallow mass of roots and earth is picked up.”
Ted remembered, also, that “it was well into fall before all the trails were cleared, and before then it was a puzzle to figure out how to approximate the previous road and trail when taking a horseback ride.”
That summer, between school and camp, he rode with the school’s wrangler, Ted Mather, to round up horses in the old Camp May pasture. He recalled that “many of the aspens were flattened, and we had to find ways to get from point A to point B without losing the horses we had already gathered.”
The downed pines were local, but aspens were flattened all over the east side of the Jemez and west side of the Sangre de Cristos from Truchas south to Hyde Park. “It was a mess,” Ted said in concluding his memories.