As General Assembly was coming to a close in Charlotte, North Carolina, the forest areas surrounding my home in Los Alamos were starting to burn. A fire of unknown origin began around one in the afternoon. In less than twenty-four hours it had spread to over 40,000 acres — an area roughly equivalent to the size of the Cerro Grande fire of 2000. That was the last fire to tear through Los Alamos, destroying hundreds of homes.
The current sentiment among most Los Alamosians (I’m a more recent transplant) is, “I can’t believe this is happening again.”
I’m sitting with my wife and kids in my parents dining room in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, watching the news from Los Alamos, New Mexico — my home. The last few days have been surreal, to say the least.
I’d been at General Assembly in Charlotte for the past week. After a week of worship and governance, my wife and I and a few friends decided that dinner and a big, dumb 3D movie was in order. As the trailers rolled, my phone buzzed in my pocket. One of my congregation’s delegates was calling.
“There’s a fire in Valle Grande,” she said. “You’ll probably be getting more calls.” I thanked her for the info and we rung off. I admit at the time I wasn’t sure what she meant. I knew there were fires near Santa Fe, but I wasn’t sure where Valle Grande was in relationship to our town.
Two hours later, the friend watching our cats while we were gone texted my wife.
Besides the kitties, what would you like to evacuate should it come to that?
A quick, frightening geography lesson in one sentence.
A sobering lesson, as well. Define what’s important in your life by what you can carry in an armload (or via the arms of a friend thousands of miles away — even more sobering). A decade’s worth of unscanned photographs. A backup hard drive. A wedding dress. Passports and bond certificates. Stuffed lovies from off the kids’ beds.
Is that it? Is everything else just stuff? Replaceable? I hope.
The past few days have been an exercise in frustration. On Monday morning, our cat-sitter evacuated, taking our kitties to a rescue shelter in Santa Fe. By Monday afternoon, what had been a voluntary evacuation of Los Alamos had become mandatory. Meanwhile, I was sitting in a workshop — also mandatory — related to my UUA committee work. My heart, understandably, was not in the moment. I was checking in on e-mails and tweets at every opportunity, calling my congregants and leaders in other churches, doing what I could to keep our little community connected, scrounging for every little scrap of news I could get, testing the limited capacity of my cell phone’s battery.
So far, everyone is safe and secure. My congregation is spread out over at least four states (not including folks like me who were already out of town when things started burning). Eleven years ago, there was no Facebook, and very few had cell phones. Now we’re all connected, even before we disperse. The church remains the church, even during this hopefully brief exile.
Point people at the congregations in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have been tapped to help those in need. Members and friends are checking in on one another and reporting back via e-mail and Facebook. My wife and I are still glued to the internet and cable news, gleaning every scrap of information we can because it’s the only thing we can really do in this situation.
As of this afternoon, the fire had not crossed over into the town. Our fire chief has said the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours are the make-or-break moment. If emergency responders can keep the fire from crossing the canyons, we may get through this with limited property damage. The evacuation may even be lifted before I touch down in New Mexico, again.
I’m keeping a fairly positive perspective. I’m alive, my family’s alive, the cats are alive. Should the worst happen, the rest is just stuff, yes. Replaceable.
But, the forests are torched. Bandelier National Monument is devastated. It will take roughly 250 years for new tree growth to replace what’s been lost. And our community (even this newbie) is rolling its collective eyes skyward and thinking, “Not again.”
Meanwhile, I’ll keep posting. And praying. We could use your prayers, too.