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Los Alamos Fire Survivors Rebuild

November 4, 2000

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) _ As flames neared his home last spring, Norman Hamer quickly packed a suitcase with some clothes and dashed out, thinking he would return in several days. Six months later, he still has no permanent place to live.

The 57-year-old systems engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory discovered his three-story frame home had been destroyed while watching a television news broadcast on the Cerro Grande Fire at a friend’s house.

``It feels sort of like a lump of acid in your stomach,″ he said. ``Everything I had in my whole life is gone. ... I don’t even know if I have a picture of my father and my mother.″

Hamer and his wife, Ann, are among 400 families who lost their homes in the blaze, which was started by the National Park Service on May 4 as a controlled burn to clear brush in the nearby Bandelier National Monument.

Within days, strong winds swept the fire toward Los Alamos _ home of the national nuclear lab _ and 25,000 people were evacuated.

The blaze scorched more than 47,000 acres in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. It took more than two months to bring the wildfire under control. Losses are estimated at $614 million.

An independent review board report released in late May found that National Park Service personnel failed to follow their own guidelines for prescribed burns.

And now, six months later, survivors are rebuilding homes, seeking compensation from the federal government and dealing with the pain of losing nearly everything they owned.

George and Linnea Sarwinski, both in their 70s, grabbed clothes, a few pieces of jewelry and their children’s artwork and embroidery as they fled their north Los Alamos duplex, which burned to the ground.

Today, just three houses remain on their street. There are gaping holes where people once lived and clear views of mountains where towering Ponderosa pines once stood.

``It’s basically just down to dirt,″ said Anna Swertfeger, the couple’s 44-year-old daughter. ``There’s hardly any trees.″

About a quarter of the fire survivors have started rebuilding. Many have rented apartments or houses while they wait for compensation.

In July, President Clinton approved a $661 million measure to compensate the victims, $455 million of which was used to set up a fire assistance fund.

As of Oct. 31, $8.1 million from the fund had been distributed, said Ricardo Zuniga, a federal fire claims office spokesman.

``People are weighing their options, seeing what kind of financial compensation they’re going to get and then deciding whether they’re going to rebuild or do something else,″ he said.

The Hamers, who rented a house in Los Alamos, will move to nearby Santa Fe, where Mrs. Hamer teaches elementary school. The couple said they can’t bear to return to their scorched lot, which brings painful memories.

Hamer still regrets he didn’t take a box of family photographs to his brother’s house last Christmas, as he had planned.

``Those are the things that really eat into you. You sort of kick yourself afterward,″ he said.

For Bev Katcher, 77, the demolition offered one reward: A builder found her diamond wedding ring among the remains of her duplex.

She and her husband, Joe, 75, are still wrangling with an insurance company and fear having to borrow money.

``You know what the biggest problem is?″ Katcher asked. ``Sleeping. I don’t know if we got that way because of the fire, but it seems like something’s still bothering us.″

Most mornings, the couple finds themselves wide awake at 3 a.m.

``I pray to my dear God to help us. Pray for us, pray for everyone,″ said Mrs. Katcher, tears brimming in her eyes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has proposed a speedier way of compensating victims by offering them a base rate of $160 per square foot for a single-family home plus additional money for appliances, landscaping and belongings, said David de Courcy, the Santa Fe-based director of FEMA’s compensation program.

While FEMA has gotten high marks so far from most fire victims, questions about compensation abound.

How much are Joe and Bev Katcher’s 500 Indian-head pennies worth, not to mention rare antiques or decades-old trees that graced many lots?

De Courcy said FEMA plans to remain flexible on compensation.

While fire victims have little reason to trust the federal government, which started the blaze, most are no longer resentful.

The Sarwinskis’ daughter says her parents have started replacing golf clubs and stocking up on kitchen gadgets.

``They’ve been doing remarkably well, considering,″ she said. ``They were kind of down when it first happened, but they have accepted it and have gone on.″

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