June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

For weeks in May, mind-whipped wildfires roared out of the piney woods of Bandelier National Monument, torching everything in their path and threatening the stockpile of plutonium and radioactive waste at New Mexico’s historic Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was developed. “People always had a feeling that this was the safest place in the world,” says Los Alamos resident Carol Relyea, 50, whose childhood home was one of more than 400 destroyed. “It absolutely floored us that this could happen.”

Even more stunning than the extent of the devastation—which incinerated 50,000 acres, uprooted 20,000 people and caused what could amount to $1 billion in damage—was the fact that the conflagration had not begun as an accident. It had been deliberately set by the National Park Service as part of a program of prescribed burns ignited each year in an effort to prevent just such runaway blazes. Admitted Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt: “The calculations that went into this were seriously flawed.”

What went wrong will be the subject of inquiries by the General Accounting Office and Congress. (According to the report of a government team appointed by Secretary Babbitt, released May 18, NPS officials who started the burn did not follow proper procedures, were inadequately trained and didn’t have enough fire crews on hand to keep the blaze under control.) But of one thing there is no doubt: The fires produced dramatic instances of heroism and self-sacrifice in the face of life-threatening danger. On the following pages are the stories of some of those whose courage and commitment were revealed under fire.

Making a Stand in the Hot Zone

It was Thursday, May 11, at 6:30 a.m. when the news came: The fire, now a mile wide, was barreling down Pajarito Canyon and threatening the plutonium facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Battalion Chief Juan Pacheco and his crew of 17 Los Alamos firefighters had had just two hours of sleep that night. “Our mission was to try and prevent the fire from crossing the highway to the lab,” says Pacheco. And there, on the two-lane road known as Plutonium Alley, is where they made their stand. Though all nuclear material was reported safely contained in a concrete building, the men faced blinding smoke that hid them from one another as flames flared out of the canyon and licked the sides of their trucks. Still, they managed to hold the fire in check well into the afternoon. “Then,” says Pacheco, “the winds kicked up to 50 mph,” fanning heat so intense it singed his eyebrows and the hair on his arms. “It went crazy. We had a wall of fire in front of us and in back of us.” At that point, the men masked their fear with black humor, nicknaming a band of six men with no water, only hand tools, “Suicide 1.” “You have to look for something to survive,” says Pacheco, 37, a married father of two and a 12-year veteran fireman. “We’d been fighting fires since Sunday and were getting beat.” At about 4 p.m. they were beaten again, as the fire blew across the road, and the men were forced to retreat. They regrouped and continued the battle until 11 p.m., when they were relieved by other firefighters. As they got to bed at 2:30 a.m., they heard that the fire had been checked 1,000 feet from the plutonium facility.

Three hours later, the firefighters were back at the lab, facing even graver danger. The flames had erupted within 200 yards of a chemical storage warehouse that, if ignited, would have sent a plume of toxic gas over northern New Mexico. The men were determined not to let the blaze take the building, and for hours they drenched it, with 15 trucks each pumping 1,500 gallons of water a minute. Meanwhile, three massive bulldozers cut a moat the size of a road to block the fire’s progress. Finally, by noon, they had it contained. Only then, when they’d won, could they allow themselves time to reflect. “You break down and cry,” says Pacheco, “thankful that no one got hurt, sorry for the people who lost everything.”

Losing His Home, Saving Other

In 10½ years of fighting fires, this was one of Dean Stroope’s closest calls. The Los Alamos native had been battling the blazes ravaging his community for four days straight, with just brief catnaps between shifts, when his crew got a call to go to the western part of town on the night of May 10. “I was in the backyards, putting out fires behind houses, and I could hear a rumble, almost like a jet engine,” remembers Stroope, 43, whose late father was also a firefighter. “It was a wall of flames coming through the tops of those pine trees, and I just ran to the ladder truck.” Fortunately, Stroope and his crew made it out alive. But he would learn later that, at the very same time, the home across town where he and his two sisters had grown up, and where he still lived with his mother, was being consumed in a six-story-high inferno.

“It was good to be working, because I wasn’t sitting there dwelling on it,” says Stroope, who had been on duty the day before when the neighborhood was ordered evacuated and he had called Carol Relyea, his older sister, to rescue a box of important papers and family photos. (Their mother, Marian, 76, was visiting her sister in Kansas.) “Reality hasn’t completely set in yet,” he admits. “It’s kind of like when my dad died, I had this feeling that he would come back the day after tomorrow.”

Stroope was so busy that he didn’t have a chance to drive by the remains of his home for two days. The wood-shingled duplex had been reduced to a smoldering heap, a few pieces of the white-and-blue china that had been in the family for 200 years visible in the rubble. “This house was nothing compared to the houses that the rich folk built up here, but it had memories,” says Stroope. “There’s things that you know you can’t replace.”

For Forlorn Pets, a Place of Refuge

In times of trouble, Kate Rindy has always looked to animals for comfort. During the Los Alamos fires, she was able to return the favor when, in just 72 hours, more than 700 displaced dogs, cats, horses and other pets were brought to the shelter she operates in Santa Fe, 30 miles to the southeast. “The last 10 days are a blur to me,” says Rindy, 48, gently-stroking Oak, an abandoned Labrador mix. “There was a moment when I wondered, ‘Can we continue to do this?’ ”

When the fire broke out, people began bringing in a veritable Noah’s Ark assortment of animals: steers, goats, geese, bull snakes, iguanas, parrots, even a three-legged ferret. Soon there were so many that Rindy—who slept only an hour or two a day during the crisis on a futon in her office—had to open a second site at the city’s rodeo grounds. (Cats were routed there, dogs stayed at the shelter.)

With help from over 100 local volunteers, Rindy and her staff of 21 placed some pets in foster homes and got veterinary care for sick animals—many of them dehydrated and in shock. They also soothed both hysterical owners who had lost their pets and animals torn from their homes. “They’ve been wonderful,” says Denise Bjarke, 40, who dropped off her puppy Trista and cat Sammie before her house burned down. “It means a lot.”

Although Rindy wonders how many animals, wild and otherwise, perished in the fire, she prefers to dwell on the positive. “My job is simply to be there and care for those we can,” she says. “I think we owe them a debt of gratitude for what they give us every day of their lives.”

Refueling the Rescue Teams

On May 10, Los Alamos restaurateur Ray Kramer had just evacuated his family to Edgewood, N.Mex., about 60 miles south, when he turned on the TV news to see his town engulfed in flames. “I thought, ‘Somebody’s got to feed those firemen,’ ” says Kramer, 52, owner of Tarpon’s Steak House. “I had just had a delivery, and I had huge quantities of food.”

The next day, Kramer, daughter Kelly, 17, and son Eric, 16, drove back to Los Alamos and set up shop at the local Elks Lodge. On the 36-in. grill in the tiny kitchen he began cooking up rib eyes, filets and strip steaks, while his children did everything from chopping vegetables to garnishing plates. He served his first dinner to firefighters at 3 a.m.—and for the next week fed thousands of emergency personnel daily.

Kramer, who didn’t leave for the duration—wife Laurie, 47, also pitched in—solicited donations of food from the New Mexico Beef Council and local grocers. “The community was pouring out to help,” says Kramer, who was joined in the kitchen by other restaurateurs, including a French chef from Santa Fe and Tony Castillo, owner of two area McDonald’s, who made 600 Quarter Pounders daily, which were boxed and taken directly to firefighters on the line. Elsewhere, Sue Dummer got permission to open the nearby restaurant she manages, De Colores, and was soon turning out 120 gallons of chile sauce a day. “We pulled together,” says Dummer. “There is a sense of community now that wasn’t there before.”

Defending the Neighborhood

Along with his precious collection of 300 vintage accordions, Tony Tomei and his girlfriend, Veronica Pena Longer, 42, had been safely evacuated from his five-bedroom redwood house in Los Alamos on May 11. But soon after reaching the shelter in nearby White Rock, he remembered that his rare Italian Bugari Armando accordion was still in the basement, so he hopped in his car and raced home to retrieve it. “When I drove up, there was a lot of smoke,” he says, and at that instant he made a decision. “I was going to hold off the fire,” he says. “I was the only one left to save the neighbors’ houses.”

Tomei, 52, an engineer and accordion instructor, had no idea how risky his task would become. With a garden hose, he spent the next few hours dousing small spot fires of pine needles and underbrush. Then the wind picked up, and the fire began blowing horizontally, rumbling toward his home from the canyon 70 feet below. He ran to the lip of the precipice and futilely attempted to extinguish the blaze. Flames and dense smoke suddenly blew up beside him, knocking him to the ground, where he desperately clung to a tree. “It sounded like a huge lion roaring. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see,” he recalls. “I stuck my face in the dirt, and thought, ‘This could be it.’ ”

Fortunately the wind shifted and Tomei survived. Against an eerie backdrop of houses burning up and down his street, he fought through much of the night without any more water and only a rake and shovel to snuff out burning debris on his neighbors’ lawns. At sunrise he got his first real look at his street. “I saw the houses leveled and thought, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” he says. But he’d saved his home along with two others. A week later, his neighbor Nancy Ten-brink, 52, returned to the house she had thought was lost and tearfully threw her arms around Tomei. “My house wasn’t worth risking his life,” she says, “but I’m so grateful.”

Pam Lambert and Bruce Frankel

Jeanne DeQuine and Ellise Pierce in Los Alamos and Linda Killian in Washington, D.C.

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