Fire victims are finally settled, but life's still topsy-turvy

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - There are plants on the porch, beds for everyone and a dining room table big enough for the whole family.

Three months after a wildfire roared through Los Alamos and destroyed their home of 23 years, life for the Hemsings has attained a veneer of normalcy.

Their rented, stuccoed doublewide offers only one visible reminder of the fire - a scorched terra cotta pot on the front lawn, now full of red petunias.

''It looks like a victim,'' Rita Hemsing said. ''But it's a survivor.''

The fire that burned through areas of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, was a harbinger of a devastating fire season. More than 4.3 million acres have burned across the parched West, about twice the 10-year average.

Flames have devoured dozens of homes in southwestern Montana's Bitterroot Valley, burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Idaho and threatened archaeological treasures in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park.

The rental is the fifth roof over the heads of Rita and Billy Hemsing and their four children still at home (two others are grown) since the Cerro Grande fire sent them fleeing on May 7. They plan to stay put for a while.

They got a couch and chairs from a relative, beds and dressers from a church, and bought a long, wooden dining room table that they surrounded with metal folding chairs.

Shelves hold a few of the photographs they were able to save. The bare, white living room walls are interrupted by a small painting of a Santa Fe church, done by her mother, that Rita grabbed when they fled from the fire.

Despite touches of the familiar, life still isn't quite right.

''This is very nice, and we're fine here. But it's not home,'' Rita said firmly. ''And it gives you a feeling of restlessness - and sadness, 'cause I still miss my house a great deal.''

The last of the flames from the 47,650-acre Cerro Grande fire only recently died out. The blaze - started by the National Park Service as a controlled burn at nearby Bandelier National Monument - forced 25,000 people from their homes, burned more than 200 structures, and left more than 400 families homeless.

The Hemsings - including David, 18; James, 15; Renee, 11; and Thomas, 9 - are still realizing their losses.

''It's a terrible feeling to suddenly remember something that you left up in a closet, or on a shelf, or under the bed or in a bottom drawer somewhere,'' Rita said. ''You think, 'Oh no, I didn't get that. I've lost that.' ... It hits you all over again.''

While Billy Hemsing is back at work at the laboratory and the children are settled into their summer routines, Rita has spent time replacing the possessions she considers most important: baptismal certificates, diplomas, yearbooks.

But even they won't soothe the most disconcerting loss.

''The sense of safety and security are gone,'' she said.

She describes feeling anxious when they're away from the house for long periods, and says they are hyper-vigilant now about house fires.

They felt safe in their old house ''and to have it totally, totally changed, it's kind of an upheaval that's hard to imagine,'' she said.

According to Jo Hillard, who coordinates disaster mental health volunteers for the American Red Cross in New Mexico, feelings of dislocation and anxiety and fatigue are to be expected of disaster victims.

''Even though externally things look like they're moving along, and everything seems to be physically in place, internally these people still have turmoil in their lives, and stress,'' said Hillard. ''It's a normal response to an abnormal situation.''

Unlike some burned-out families, the Hemsings have no insurance complaints. Their losses were fully covered and they already have the money to rebuild.

But even that is a difficult prospect.

''My old house is so vivid I just can't imagine a different house on that lot,'' Rita said. ''They keep telling me, 'Oh, you can change everything.' Yeah, I can, but I can't get this thought out of my mind, of everything the way it was.''

Their house site - on a street of tall trees at the edge of the forest - is still a heap of twisted metal and ash, a brick chimney the only remnant of the home.

They're anxious to get the debris hauled away, but Rita is not sure she will be able to watch.

''It's rubble,'' she said. ''But it's our rubble.''

On the Net:

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

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

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