Refiner’s Fire (Jan-Apr 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mollie Spaulding
January – April, 2000

On Thursday, May 4, 2000, the U.S. Park Service started a controlled burn in Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. What was meant to “fireproof” the forests by burning underbrush, soon became an out-of-control wildfire.

As my husband Wade and I left church on Sunday, May 7, we noticed a plume of smoke coming over the Jemez Mountains, southwest of Los Alamos. We did not think much of it, however, and had dinner at a local restaurant before going home. We tried to take naps that afternoon, but the smell of smoke had become so strong that we were unable to sleep.

We prepared for NUNYA (our Sunday night devotional with the youth group) and set out for the park where we would meet the kids. During our games and fried chicken supper, smoke billowed over us and planes began flying overhead. This was something new; Los Alamos is a “no fly zone” due to the National Labs.

Just as we began our devotional, a man stopped by our circle and asked us if we knew that the town had started an evacuation. After another few minutes, we dismissed the kids, and I went home to watch the news. Still not worried, Wade decided to take a couple of the boys to play their usual Sunday night basketball game.

I was nervous, so before he left Wade made a plan and we determined what each of us would pack if we did have to evacuate. He took the cell phone and told me to call him if the order came to evacuate.

At about 7:45 p.m. an evacuation of the Western area where we live was ordered, and I began to follow our plan. I called Wade to come home but he had to take some kids home from basketball. I called our parents while I packed. I was beginning to panic as I spoke to my dad. “Hey,” he said. “You are all right. Get some clothes for a couple of days and your photo albums. Then you take care of Simeon (our Weimeraner). Wade will take care of you. God will take care of both of you.”

Wade came home and we packed everything we could get into our two cars. As we waited in traffic to get down the main hill, I petted our dog, to calm both our nerves, and prayed, “God take care of my home” over and over. Bill and Jennifer McKerley, an elder from our congregation and his wife, had called to invite us to stay with them in White Rock. White Rock is a “bedroom” community for Los Alamos, and is ten miles down the hill.

For the next few days, we stayed glued to the television, watching the local cable channel and listening to the local AM radio station. BY Wednesday, they believed the fire was coming to a close. Wade took Simeon back to our house and spent the day in Los Alamos, rounding up and making contact with the youth group. Then at 1:30 p.m. the call came to evacuate the entire city: Los Alamos was evacuated by 6:00 p.m.

That evening our congregation met at a home in White Rock. Wade and I had heard the news that the entire Western area was lost in flames. One of our members, Jobie Ogburn, already had a list of where families from our congregation had gone. We had a devotional of singing and praying. I was crying; I thought our house was gone, but it was good to be with family.

Then the relative safety we had been feeling was shattered when the call to evacuate White Rock came at 2:00 a.m. Wade slept with the television on that night and heard the news first. We woke everyone else in the house and were almost packed by the time they got dressed. While still packing, Wade called Tim Stidham, our preacher and Wade’s close friend, to see where they were going. Tim told us where to meet in Santa Fe.

To add to our growing misery, Wade had driven our truck into Los Alamos that Wednesday but was with one of the kids on North Mesa when the call to evacuate Los Alamos came. The police began trafficking people down the canyon, so Wade was not allowed to get the truck. Then, since our car was packed so full with our clothes and stuff, we had to leave Simeon in White Rock. We filled lots of water pails and gave him the rest of the dog food and left quickly. Simeon cried in the back yard; he knew something was wrong. I cried for a long time, again chanting a prayer, “I don’t care about the house anymore. Please protect my puppy.”

Wade and I sat in traffic for an hour before getting out of White Rock. When we reached our rendezvous, the Wal-Mart parking lot in Santa Fe, Jobie was there with a list. Our congregation had been stopping by all night, giving her cell phone numbers and addresses where we could be reached in Albuquerque. We gave her our cell phone number and she gave us our “contact” in Albuquerque, the sister of one of our members. Wade and I set out for my cousin’s house in Albuquerque. We hit the sack that morning around 6:00 a.m.

The next day was spent watching television. The Albuquerque stations had reporters in Loss Alamos and ran 24-hour broadcasts on the “Cerro Grande Fire,” as it had been named. We watched as the fire ravaged our town, devouring homes. We kept trying to identify things, but there were no more landmarks that we could see from the helicopter’s viewpoint. The Netherwood Church of Christ in Albuquerque set up meals for the evacuees, and Wade and I were anxious to see our friends. As we walked into the church building that night, everyone said our names joyfully, and I almost cried with happiness at being with those people. I hugged as many people as I could, sat down and talked with them, and generally enjoyed being with my family.

As the days passed, our meetings at the Netherwood church became very important to me. I felt out of place, and impotent. I kept expecting to wake up and find out that the fire was just a horrible nightmare. We all felt that way. But being together, seeing the faces of the people I love made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I remember thinking, “If we can just all get together, it’ll be alright.”

By Saturday, we were being sent lists of homes destroyed. Our home was not on the list. For the first time in days, Wade and I began to hope that our house was still there. Others were not so lucky, however. Five families from our congregation lost their homes. Upon hearing that one of those families was going to the Glorietta Conference Center, which was housing evacuees, I said, “They shouldn’t do that. They should be here with us!” I felt that our family should be together. We needed each other.

Some residents were able to go to their homes by the next Monday night. Wade and I went home on Thursday, the 18th, twelve days after our evacuation. Our home was not damaged. The worst that happened to my little family was that Simeon had to stay in the animal shelter in Santa Fe for a week. Animal Control picked him up in White Rock and kept him in Santa Fe. Countless animals were saved and sheltered during the evacuation by those wonderful, selfless people.

Life is not back to normal, though. Now, as I write, our church building is swarming with activity. The Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort of Nashville came to our aid almost immediately.

While we were still in Albuquerque, a representative came to inform us of the shipments that would be coming as soon as we got back in town. Our youth room is stacked full of brand new single and double mattresses and box springs. Our dining room is full of food boxes and cleaning supplies. A semi-truck parked outside is full of dinette sets and chests-of-drawers. We have volunteers from the congregation at the building almost 24 hours a day. The congregations in Espanola and Pojoaque have sent many strong backs to help unload the almost constant arrivals from Nashville. The deacon in charge of our treasury is working overtime with checks coming in from all over the country.

I have learned a few things since this all happened. I have learned what is really important to me in my home – my husband, my dog and our wedding pictures. I know what I can do without – pretty much everything else. I have learned that you can never underestimate the generosity of people. Northern New Mexico turned itself inside out to help the victims of the Cerro Grande fire.

And I learned this: in times of crisis, you need to be with your family. Not just your biological family, since both sets of our parents are in Texas, but with the people who love you and see you every day. I felt an indescribable need to be close to my congregation. When I saw the faces of my beloved friends in Albuquerque, I knew they were my family. I knew that we belonged to each other. A bond of love – the bond of Christ’s blood connected us. I am a member of a beautiful, strong, resilient, out-pouring family. The love of Christ is shining, bursting out of everyone I see now.

So if you want to see what it is to be a true Christian family, a family committed to being Christ’s light in this world, come see the family that’s been refined by fire. God has refined us, is still refining us to be a mighty force in the world, in Los Alamos. We are a family of tragedy, refined by fire, shining and strong.Wineskins Magazine

Mollie Spaulding

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About...

Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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