Community Discussion: Share Your Perspective On How Cerro Grande Fire Showed The Character Of Los Alamos

Staff Report

Mother’s Day, May 10, 2015 marks 15 years since this community evacuated for the Cerro Grande Fire. The Fire showed the character of Los Alamos and Northern New Mexico, but also altered its psyche. 

The Los Alamos Daily Post is hosting a community discussion of those changes. We invite our readers to share their perspectives and we begin with Los Alamos resident Jody Benson who wanted to contribute a few memories to start the discussion.

Here’s her story:

On Tuesday afternoon as evacuees from the holocaust Cerro Grande Fire were returning to Los Alamos, a lone National Guardsman stood at stiff attention saluting the homecoming. This gallant gesture of respect for the victims is only one of the hundreds of courageous acts and small heroisms that created the human story out of what was at the time the worst wildfire in New Mexico history. 

The news tells of the 48,000 acres and 420 homes burned, but maybe the rest of us want to tell the story, not only of a few of the many who risked their lives, but of some who opened their hearts to help the evacuees.

On Wednesday the winds were 50 miles per hour. Slurry bombers and helicopters were grounded. When the fire jumped the fire line at Los Alamos Canyon, the last defense before the 100-foot wall of flames hit the town, a solo bomber pilot risked his life to fly flame-level low up the canyon and bomb the edge of the inferno to prevent the fire from devouring all of Western Area.

The winds blew firebrands a mile-and-a-half in front of the flames setting homes on fire and creating multiple and far-flung emergencies for the firefighters. Scott Lucido and his crew were on 35th Street when the power went out. With the power went the water-pumping capabilities, and Scott watched helplessly as the homes that hadn’t yet been watered down exploded into flame. One of the firefighters watched as his parent’s home, the house he grew up in, burned to the ground.

Late Wednesday night, when Brad Parker realized that his father’s development, Ponderosa Estates, was in danger, he drove to another developer’s home and asked to use his water-tanker truck.  Instead of letting Brad go alone, the other developer jumped in his truck, and by the time they reached Los Alamos, they had gathered a caravan of tankers and bulldozers made up of the Parker and Donaldson crews.

The men worked through the night and within the arch of 100-foot-high flames to clear trees around the development and water down the houses. In the end, the only home lost in that development was that of Brad’s parents.

Seventy-seven-year-old Mr. Bingham, whose wife Mary had died in February, decided to either save the home they’d lived in for 30 years or go down in the fire. During the firestorm he stayed on his ladder with a hose watering down his steeply pitched roof, and watched as something in Mr. Devany’s shed exploded, hurtled over his house, and landed a block away to burn up the Weber’s home.

Tommy Tomei stayed on Ridgeway. Despite his terror of the holocaust, he nevertheless saved three homes on Ridgeway with his garden hose. One of the homes lost, however, was that of Chick Keller, one of the premier scientists of climate modeling who had, years ago, predicted pockets of extreme weather, of droughts and flood, heat waves and freezing temperatures, and the human disasters that would accompany these extremes.

Because, since Sunday, Western Area residents had been evacuated and then allowed to return home again, when the whole community was evacuated many left their pets believing them to be safe. When homes started to burn, police went house to house to rescue animals—cats, dogs, birds, 54 chickens, a goat, a couple iguanas, and a snake.

The National Guard escorted the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Posse and their horse trailers up through the town and to the stables to round up many of the horses left by people who didn’t own trailers.  Animal World Rescue housed the rescued animals at the Santa Fe Rodeo Grounds to which people brought blankets, food, leashes, and animal carriers, and volunteers sat with frightened animals until they were located by their grateful owners.

The Saturday after the homes were destroyed was to have been the Junior-Senior Prom. The high school students had already suffered a horrible tragedy when two of their classmates were  murdered on a Good Friday pilgrimage to the sacred shrine of Chimayo. On the night that was to have been their prom, these kids were scattered around Northern New Mexico, many not knowing where the others were.

Even so, on the day the refugees were allowed to return, some of those high school girls organized a “Green Ribbon Campaign” to tell the firefighters and volunteers, “Thank you for saving our town.”

When the refugees were allowed to return, the Prom was rescheduled, but many of the girls had lost their dresses to the fire or to smoke damage. Girls from around Northern New Mexico, girls from neighborhoods who had helped the evacuees, organized a prom-dress donation, a group of Los Alamos women gathered and altered the dresses.

Then, after, when we were allowed to come back, the County ran garbage trucks day after day after day to pick up from the curb smoke damaged items and food rotted from power outages. Red Cross had aid stations on corners in the burned neighborhoods. Insurance companies and FEMA set up offices in Canyon School.

In the early weeks of lingering smoke, helicopters and spotter planes flew to watch for stray spot fires, and later, the choppers hauled seed and straw to burn-mitigation areas.

The whole summer was noise, chaos, and heavy equipment cleaning up the burned areas, but also had days of citizens led by local organizers and by the BEAR Team raking, seeding, and hauling and scattering straw to help our beloved mountains recover a little green habitat for all the lost and displaced wildlife: the fawns and bear cubs separated from mothers, the lost bobcat kittens, the surviving birds, skunks, porcupines, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and chipmunks.

The fire showed the character of Los Alamos, and that of Northern New Mexico.

I’m grateful to remember that time when the light of the community showed brighter than the wall of flames.

Editor’s note: Email your stories to

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