Every spring, my husband and I remember the year Los Alamos, N.M., was set on fire. Closing our eyes, we recall the wall of fire that destroyed 40,000 acres of splendid forest and hundreds of homes in May 2000. The fire was ordered by management at the nearby national monument, despite a season of drought, heat, and high winds. The controlled burn raged out of control, almost breaking the spirit of one of the most important scientific communities.
One morning, all the phones in town rang: 15,000 people - scientists, school teachers, small-business owners, families - were ordered to flee. "Pack your precious and important possessions," local police and firefighters advised. "Get in your car, get out of town. Now."
Imagine: What if you had just a few hours to pack your car with your most beloved possessions? What would you grab? Funny, so many of us took the same things: photo albums, favorite clothes. Jewelry, cash, books. Paintings pried off the wall. Of course, our treasured cats, dogs, birds, bowls of goldfish, hamsters, rabbits. In the last moments, my husband and I packed our computers. He grabbed a huge photo of his cinematographer father filming a 1932 African lion hunt. I packed the travel books and magazine articles I'd published in the last dozen years.
Then, at the last second, I threw my yellow address book into my purse. Coffee stained, dog-eared, it contains names, addresses, and phone numbers of everyone in the world I love.
We joined the line of cars snaking slowly down the only road out of town. Santa Fe was 45 miles away. Roscoe, usually such a silent cat, howled the entire way.
That week, Santa Fe embraced Los Alamos: Friends and family took us into their spare bedrooms, luxury hotels donated rooms for $25 a night. Schools and churches opened their gyms and basements, offering cots and free soup. Federal, state, and city social agencies deluged us with food, clothing, and free phone cards. Kinko's donated computer time so we could keep in touch via e-mail.
Still, our days as fire refugees were long and anxiety-filled. Without jobs or routines, most of us spent days watching local TV. Dreadful video footage of fire consuming our forest, our homes, our belongings.
Finally, unable to stomach any more TV news, I found my yellow address book and began going through it page by page, calling family and friends. I checked my e-mail at Kinko's every day and was astonished at the hundreds of messages from friends all over the world. "We love you; we're sending prayers. If you lose your home, come stay with us! Our house is your house." Over and over, the same messages of comfort.
One morning, we awoke with the most comforting realization. Though deeply attached to our house and everything inside it, what really meant the most to us were family and friends. My husband, Warren, and I remembered years of parties celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. Friends visiting from out of town. Happy days of skiing, hiking, and dinners that lasted all weekend. No matter what the fire destroyed, their friendship and love would help us start again.
On the fifth day of our evacuation, TV stations told us we could return. Not sure what we'd find, my husband and I drove slowly up the mountain. Roscoe howled all the way. The once beautiful forest was now thousands of smoldering black sticks. A cemetery of trees.
We drove into our neighborhood, around the circle to our address. There was our beloved house, still her perfect stucco self. She had survived New Mexico's most devastating fire in history. And we had learned the most important lesson of all.
Looking at the house through our car window, Warren and I cried and hugged. Then my yellow address book and I went inside, to call family and friends. We were home.