Thursday, June 30, 2011

Filling in a Fire Sandwich

At times we are glued to the computer for You-Tube videos, news bits, and published fire maps, trying from this great distance to figure out where we are in the threat to our town.

Gas station one block from my house. Photo
taken by a police officer on June 29.
As of this writing, late Thursday night, Los Alamos has been spared. This feat is entirely the work of crews setting back-fires, the huge water reservoirs that were installed after the last fire, the judicious use of water and human resources, and a lot of wise experience on the part of our local firemen and officials. I could not be more amazed at how the fire somehow managed to flow towards the west and hit the ski area and not the western edge of town, how the fire was stopped essentially at State Road 4 and did not encroach (much) onto lab property. It is a road I have traversed almost daily for 8 years. I know it by heart and it will pain me to see it wasted and charred. But on the north side of the road, it will appear normal; green Ponderosas towering above the canyon, interspersed with juniper and a few pinon, till the elevation diminishes and the junipers take the lead.

Of course there are rumors....we might return tomorrow, no, no, it'll be Sunday, ooops, wrong again - it'll be Monday. At this point, unless some twist of fate happens, the fire will be put out by rain, back winds, or lack of fuel as it runs into the previously burned area left by the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. It will end. And it will end as the largest and most destructive fire in New Mexico history, just as the recent Wallow Fire was the worst in Arizona's history. It's been a bad bad year. Right now about 15 more fires are burning elsewhere in the state, most of them caused by lightning.

I tried to go for a walk this morning, along the Bosque, just west of my friend Anna's home but I was turned back by the police. They have a portable substation parked at the trailhead and were not allowing anyone to go down the paved trails. Then later in the day, we heard of a fire in the Bosque, just south of here, in Tingley Park. I feel like I am in a fire sandwich, potentially being burned from two sides. The fire would have to jump a six lane bridge, Central Avenue, but it is conceivable we could end up evacuating from Anna's house too.

I'll be so glad when the monsoon rains start. The clouds built up today and then we experienced a typical New Mexico 4-inch rain.....4 inches between the drops!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Update on the Las Conchas/Los Alamos fire

Wednesday:  the day dawns beautifully in Albuquerque, cool, a slight breeze off the river, wild Mexican chickens - lean and mean - squawk madly while a Cooper's Hawk soars overhead. The tiniest chicks are hidden under chamisa bushes and prickly pear cactus pads. Binky is very happy living in Albuquerque where she has a walled backyard inundated with birds and lizards.

The whole town of Los Alamos was evacuated Monday afternoon. I was very happy to have been in the first wave of volunteer evacuees on Sunday night. So far the flames have stayed south of Lab property, with a few spot fires quickly put out, then it climbed up the back side of the ski area to burn over the top. The town is not yet out of the woods (so to speak!) and people are not allowed back in yet. About a thousand people have not evacuated and the police cannot force them to leave. One man was interviewed. He thinks there will be looters and he's staying put. They showed him on the TV watering his lawn with a little sprinkler. Looters? Wow. A fire can burn everything you own to the ground, and kill you too, and you're worried about looters? Does the man not have insurance? I am often astonished at how other people think, and what they are most worried about in life. Nothing I own, not one thing, is worth risking my life for. But having lost everything once before, I guess I now have a very different attitude about stuff.

After the last fire, when my son and I were truly homeless, all our possessions stuffed into a single minivan, my friend Laura came out of her house waddling under the weight of a huge box. She said "Here's some stuff. It's un-American to be without stuff!". I laughed till I almost cried. How American this guy is, this man risking his life to protect his stuff from looters. Looters who couldn't possibly be noticed (?) by the hundreds of police, firemen, and national Guard troops in town to protect everyone's property. Clearly the poor man has trust issues. I hope his descendants appreciate the risks he's taken to protect what he will eventually leave them in his will.

As for today, the fire is not under control, but it is also not as threatening as it was, nor are they quite as worried about the town going down in flames. No one is yet allowed back into town, but I suspect by Friday or Saturday, people will begin to go home. Surely life will be back to normal by Tuesday of next week.

My life at the moment is centered around carrying on with the trip planned last October for the 4th of July weekend. The Mountaineer's Club has an annual hut trek in Colorado. I have my pillow and sleeping bag in the car, a backpack I just keep in the car for emergencies with a first aid kit, water, space blanket, rain poncho and the like, and my hiking boots. All I really need to purchase are some long pants, socks, and a few other small items. The food I'd purchased for the trip is still at home, so will have to make another trek to the store. We are alive, our property is intact, life is good once again.

And it all hinges on the winds staying reasonably calm for the next few days. They are predicted to be quite high this afternoon......

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Unexpected Travel....

Albuquerque, NM, June 27, 2011

Cumulus smoke rising.
My son and I evacuated our home in Los Alamos, NM,  last night. A wall of fire could be seen to the south, about 3 miles long. By 10:30 pm the winds had changed direction and the smoke was being blown towards the south, revealing the glowing forest punctuated by tall flames as groups of trees exploded like matchsticks.

We have done this before. When he was 9, on May 10th, 2000, we evacuated our home along with ten thousand other people, as police cars cruised by, loudspeakers blaring "Evacuate, Evacuate". This time, the authorities were suggesting people evacuate on a voluntary basis. My friend Rheta had packed her bags and was dashing back and forth to her car, eager to meet a friend in Pojoaque and go on to Taos to stay at her aunt's cabin. I said I didn't think it would come into town overnight, but she said "How can you be so sure?". On the way back to my condo, a block away, I could see flames on the ridge. All day long there was only heavy smoke billowing up like a cumulus rain cloud, now there were flames. I went into my condo and said to my son "We're leaving." It took about an hour to gather up the most important things: photo albums, the oil paintings, jewelry, the book containing the trust and all important papers. He packed a typewriter someone had given him recently. I objected for a second, but remembered how the last time I had told him to leave the Nintendo and games behind, only to discover later, after we lost everything, that one of the games had memory, so if we bought a new one, he'd have to play it for weeks to get back to the same 'place' he'd been before. It had broken his little 9 year old heart, so this time, I bit my tongue and told him to take whatever he thought was most important.

The cloud over the condo complex.

I'd removed the back seats (4) from the van weeks ago when I was camping in it, so we had lots of room and weren't even crowded. Binky did not appreciate the car ride and howled inside her cat carrier. As speed increased, so did the frequency of her howling.

Across the canyon: the labs and the glow.
We stopped at the trail head, just east of town to look back at the fire. The condo complex is right on the edge of the canyon between the Los Alamos National Labs and the townsite. All we could see from our condo was an immense column of smoke with flames at the bottom. By 10:30 pm, the wind had shifted and from the trailhead we could see the red glow, the flashes of shooting flames.....the extent of the fire was a swath about 2 miles wide. If the wind holds and the fire is blown back on itself, and IF the rains that are predicted for today materialize, the town should be in fine shape.

Lab buildings and a major flare. Scary stuff!!

So the plan for today is to stay in Albuquerque. I've called friends who stayed in town overnight. The wind is quiet. The labs, most businesses, and county offices are closed. Unless the winds start up again, and blow from the SW as they are usually prone to do, the town should be OK. On the other hand, should the wind shift and increase violently, the town could be in such immediate danger most people might have trouble evacuating. We are staying put.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pie Town and the Mal-Pie

The edge of the Malpais.
North of Pie Town, New Mexico, the land rolls in hills covered with classic juniper/pinon forest, full of chamisa, sagebrush, potentilla, cholla, and prickly pear cactus.  Further north, straight up the dirt road that leads from the Pie-O-Neer cafe to the badlands is the Malpais, the rough and tumble black lava beds that are barely 600 years old with little vegetation or dirt covering their charcoal-colored rough ropy surfaces. One can easily imagine how beastly hot a forest fire was when you see the remains, and it's equally easy to imagine the hot slow lava flowing, burning up everything in it's path, until for whatever reason it cooled enough to stop, like maple syrup spilled on a table spreads but never makes it to the edge.

The Malpais. Pronounced Mal-Pie. How fitting that it's so very close to Pie Town.

Sandstone cliffs 
Between the black lava and the amazing sandstone cliffs that remind one of a Georgia O'Keefe painting, there is just enough room for an macadam road, two lane, sleek and fast. A relief to reach after 30 miles of washboard dirt tracks through ranches and 12-acre subdivided lots, many still without their planned vacation homes. The dirt road is the path for hikers doing the Continental Divide Trail. About half way up the dirt road is an old abandoned rock store where the hikers can replenish their supply of water. They can stay overnight if they need to. Off that dirt road are more dirt roads, and then more branching off from those. Dirt roads leading to more hills, forest, and ranch lands. Men in pickups populate these roads. Pickups pull trailers filled with cut logs for woodstoves or cleared brush or pumps and machinery for fixing a well. Pickups stop in the middle of the road, facing in opposite directions so the drivers can chat about their latest projects or gun acquisitions. It's a man's land. But there are a few women, and many of them are tough ranchers too. Fashion runs to jeans and boots, cowboy hats with turquoise and silver bands, shirts with pearl buttons. Functional jewelry like leather-strapped watches adorn their slim wrists. 

An arch in the cliffs.
It's windy. It's dry. It's rocky. It's beautiful. Cell phones work in certain spots. You can spot those places by the dirt pull-outs on either side of the road, and by the bars on your cell phone. There is electricity, delivered by poles and wires, some places have land-line phones too, but everyone has a generator because you never know when the wind might blow down a power line, or when lightning will take out a transformer. No electricity means no pump, no water, no fans, no heat in the winter. It can mean the difference between life and death.

It's possible, in winter to be snowed in for two or three weeks. People who live 'way out' know to stock up on canned goods. They can bake their own bread. They keep their propane tanks full and extra cans of gasoline in the sheds and garages. They are survivors. Some are prepared for the world to end and still they will survive. This is why they live here. Most though live here because they always have. Most were born and raised here, helped their families on the ranch, then inherited and continued. It's a way of life. The towns are small. People know one another. People care about each other. People feel each other's losses as their own. An old man insisted on living on his place, but fell and broke a hip. Nobody knows when he died. Bad roads due to mud and snow kept everyone away for too many days. People felt sad, but knew it was the only way he wanted to go. Die the way you live. Not a bad motto.

Close up of the arch.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tumbleweed Express

Memorial Day, 2011

On my way north out of Silver City, I stopped in the little town of Glenwood. A  wonderful “attraction” there is called the Cat Walk. It’s an elevated set of stairs and platforms through a narrow canyon, the modern equivalent of an old wooden one back in the gold mining days, that allowed the miners to get way up the canyon to the mine. I didn’t stop this time to visit the Cat Walk, I just got gas at the one and only station in town.

There are 4 pumps and none of them are automatic, you have to go inside and pay first. The store isn’t a typical convenience store either, it’s also the town’s one and only grocery. I almost tripped on a box next to the entry that had a hand-written sign on it: If you’re going to Pie Town, take this to the Pie-O-Neer Café.

I paid for the gas and asked the woman behind the counter if I should take it, Pie Town was my destination. She was just thrilled and offered her husband to carry it to my car. It was a pretty small box so I thought I could probably manage it. It weighed a ton!! I had no idea what was in it, but I lugged it to the car and drove on.

The map showed a road turning north from Apache Creek, a few miles from Reserve. But somehow I missed it. I ended up driving on to Datil. The map shows both routes to be about the same, distance-wise, but the other road is supposedly prettier. I finally made Pie town about 2:00 in the afternoon. Sure enough, there are 2 restaurants: the Pie-O-Neer, and the Pie Town Café. Both serve… guessed it….pies. There is a post-office in an old adobe building that appears to be cracking in half, and I think I passed a gas station. Some houses can be seen if you look quickly, off to the south side of the road. Maybe 60 people live there.

The Cell Phone Booth, the only spot where you can
 talk on your cell phone.
North of Pie Town, about 12 miles. 
It was Monday, and Memorial Day, but the Pie-O-Neer was open. It’s in a quaint little building with quite a few cars parked outside. I was glad it was open because my only other option would have been to call the number on the box, and there is NO cell service in Pie Town. I went in and told the man who was sweeping the floor that I had a box from Glenwood. He came out to fetch it and asked me to come inside. In the old days the Pony Express would deliver mail from one place to another, but now days, that personalized service is called the Tumbleweed Express. The owner, the waitress and the sweeper all gave me a big hug and thanked me profusely. They’d been waiting for this box for a while, it contained tourist pamphlets (which accounted for the weight!) and they were so happy to be able to fill up the rack again. By this late in May, tourist season is in full swing.  I was offered a piece of pie as a reward for the community service. Most of the pies were fresh out of the oven. They looked scrumptious. Two kinds of apple - a crisp and a regular crust pie; strawberry-rhubarb, chocolate cream, cherry, peach, and lemon meringue. I chose cherry and took it with me. The owner said to open the box as soon as I got to my destination since the pie was still hot and it would steam up the crust.  What a nice bunch of people.  I just love small towns in the West. People depend on each other, and even on the kindness of strangers…..and it works!