Bittersweet holiday for Los Alamos fire victims

The Associated Press
Saturday November 25, 2000

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Ask 9-year-old Thomas Hemsing what he’s thankful for this holiday season, and he doesn’t hesitate: 

“That we have a home for us to live in, just for now,” said the fourth-grader. “For all the cool things I’ve gotten for free, all the donations.” 

The holidays have been bittersweet in Los Alamos, where 400 families were uprooted by raging fire in the spring. Snow has made the scorched hills look even bleaker. 

Rita and Billy Hemsing often take son Thomas and 12-year-old daughter Renee to the spot where their house of 23 years turned to blackened rubble. As they make do in a rented home, they dream of the future. 

“I’m glad we’re rebuilding,” Thomas said. 

He thinks it will be “kind of neat” to have two bathrooms – the old house had one – and he likes the idea of bigger windows planned for the front. 

Renee puts a higher premium on an intangible feature of the new home: “The same security we had at the old place, because we’re all there.” 

Making do has not just meant deferring dreams of new closet space for Thomas and Renee but also enduring a 35-minute bus ride to Mountain Elementary School, about twice as long as before. 

The school district allowed displaced children to stay at their old school, rather than making them transfer near temporary homes. So, buses weave through neighborhoods, picking up kids scattered like ashes by the fire. 

“This was really all they had left,” said Rosine McGhee, a counselor at Mountain Elementary School, where more than 70 students lost homes. 

Renee and Thomas keep up straight As. Like their classmates, they work at restoring a routine and being optimistic, the counselor said. But overall the kids have more trouble concentrating and are more easily frustrated. Some still can’t sleep soundly. 

“I think, in general, people are just more on edge,” McGhee said. 

The fire may have died but it lingers in indelible memories, “always talked about” among students, according to Renee. 

“Some kids are doing science fair projects on it. And we’re studying the rebirth of plants after fire,” said Renee, whose family has been staying across town from the edge of the forest where they once lived. 

At the new Hemsing home, seasonal changes bring fresh, new reminders of what was lost. 

The roasting pan for Thanksgiving turkey. File boxes full of recipes, including one for Christmas bread. Wrapping paper, bows and gift tags. Red felt Christmas stockings, embroidered with the children’s names. 

But the kindness of strangers has acted as a salve. 

A local church gave away free Nativity scenes and Christmas ornaments. A card store donated recipes, decorations and other holiday items.  

Someone made dozens of quilted Christmas stockings for the schoolchildren. 

Meanwhile, Rita grapples with the loss. She has “virtual reality” dreams in which she glides through each room of the old house, noticing every detail.  

She is saddened every time she looks up at the mountains, with their “black skeletons” of trees. She has been ill more frequently than usual. 

She catches herself becoming embittered and thinks better of it. 

“We have what we need,” she said. “And the kids are fine.” 

On the Net: 

Los Alamos County: http://www.lac.losalamos.nm.us 

Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce: http://www.losalamos.com/chamber