LOS ALAMOS, N.M. Almost one week after the Los Alamos wild fire ravaged their community May 10-12, Michael and Connie Johnson prepared to sort through the ashes of their home.
Days earlier they had seen what was left of their property on a television news report. Then a ward member who had been working in the disaster zone confirmed their fears: everything was gone, including a car left on the property and the family's sheds.
The fire, started by the National Park Service to remove dry brush and grass, burned out of control and engulfed more than 42,000 acres, destroyed 260 homes, threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory and caused the evacuation of more than 20,000 people, including more than 800 Church members in two wards. No members or missionaries were injured by the blaze. However, 10 member homes were destroyed and others damaged.
Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, is a company town that sprang up in the 1940s as the base of operations for the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb. Today much of the leadership for the Santa Fe New Mexico Stake resides in the community and works at the national laboratory.
The Johnsons, and their six children, chose not to enter the disaster zone May 14, the first day they could, instead observing Mother's Day at the Santa Fe Stake center by attending sacrament meeting.
The stake center was the gathering place for many of the members from Los Alamos and White Rock who had left their homes. The wild fire reached Los Alamos May 10, forcing the evacuation of the entire town. Many of the 400 Church members in Los Alamos moved just 12 miles down the road to White Rock, staying with families and members there until that community was also evacuated.
H. Thomas Blair, second counselor in the Santa Fe stake presidency, said after the second major evacuation dozens of Church members living in and around Santa Fe spontaneously came to the stake center, offering their homes to those who needed a place to stay and their pastures to evacuated livestock.
Although locating scattered members after the evacuation was a challenge, President Blair noted that members of the two wards looked after each other and immediately began to check up on one another. The system worked better than one could have imagined.
Stake President E. Ray Martin was out of town at the time of the evacuation. However, he returned to find things in good order.
"The people there were incredibly accommodating," President Martin said. "We had more offers of homes than we needed, more food and clothing available than we could use."
Church members in Santa Fe thought of "little things that matter a lot," he added. For example, every adult woman attending Church on Mother's Day was given a flower, despite that fact that attendance at the Santa Fe Ward was more than two-times larger than usual.
That meant a lot to Sister Johnson, whose family left their house with clothing items, 72-hour kits, legal documents, scriptures and photographs. Their son remembered his Scout sash and merit badges. However, their college-age daughter who had just returned home for the summer left her unpacked belongings.
"At least we have each other," said Sister Johnson. "We have the gospel. We have our Sunday clothes so we can go to Church."
They also have seen an outpouring of support from members and others in the community who in many cases were evacuated themselves. They have had dozens of phone calls, one couple offered their home and another a sewing machine.
A total stranger saw the family shopping and asked if they were from Los Alamos. She then purchased a new swim suit for each family member.
"The thing that has been astonishing and amazing is the outpouring of help from the people of northern New Mexico to all the evacuees," President Martin said.
Many Church members, including the sister missionaries who had been serving in Los Alamos, stayed at the Baptist convention center in the area, he said. There they were given private rooms and three meals a day free of charge. Others received special rates at local hotels and motels.
President Martin said Church members will be able to repay some of the kind service given to them by helping others when needs become apparent in Los Alamos.
While many people have been able to return to their homes in White Rock and in some areas of Los Alamos, many will not have gas or other utilities for days or weeks. Those in badly burned areas may not even be able to return to their homes for some time.
"We don't know what the long-term needs are," said Kenneth M. Spencer, bishop of the Los Alamos Ward, explaining that resources are available to help everyone who needs them and service projects in the area will be organized.
"People have come closer to each other," he said. "There are a lot of stories where people have reached out and helped each other. . . . The one thing that was disappointing to a lot of families in Santa Fe and elsewhere is that there wasn't much more they could do."