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Displaced by wildfire, evacuees make the best of it

Men carrying children look at the smoke from the Wallow wildfire in Apache County, Arizona
Men carrying children look at the smoke from the Wallow wildfire in Apache County, Arizona

By Zelie Pollon and Dennis Carroll

ESPANOLA, New Mexico (Reuters) - Beneath a sun made red by smoke, Alex Corbe waits outside a Red Cross shelter for a ride to a friend's home to escape a wildfire that is licking at the edges of the sprawling Los Alamos nuclear weapons complex where he works.

Inside the Santa Claran Hotel Casino in Espanola, where the Red Cross has set up a shelter that is serving as a way station for the displaced, evacuees chatted, ate hot dogs and hamburgers, read, watched TV or gathered their thoughts.

"Everything was perfect," said Corbe, a 29-year-old applied mathematician at the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's preeminent nuclear facility.

Residents of Los Alamos, home to around 12,000 people, were ordered to evacuate on Monday as flames from the out-of-control wildfire crept within four miles of the city center and encroached on the boundary of the 28,000-acre laboratory site, home to the nation's largest supply of nuclear weapons.

State police and Arizona National Guardsmen blocked all entry points to the city of Los Alamos on Monday as thousands of residents loaded up family members, precious belongings, and beloved pets before heading out.

The nuclear laboratory was shut down, and fire crews scurried to douse spot fires carried onto the grounds by winds from the leading edge of the blaze.

Around 95 people took refuge in two Red Cross shelters, mainly at Espanola where 90 green cots were lined up in neat rows. Most evacuees were finding other accommodations, with hotels as far away as Albuquerque opening their doors or giving cut rates to evacuees, Red Cross spokesman Arthur Bishop said.

"It was a chance to take a shower, have a place to stay and some food," said Michael Calloway, 53, who left Los Alamos with nothing but a change of clothes, some toiletries and a cache of personal papers and documents.

Many evacuees stopped to deliver pets to the Espanola Animal shelter, overflowing with cat boxes, dog food and slightly panicked animals. It took in nearly 200 animals on Monday, Community Outreach Coordinator Nina Chiotasso said.

Hannah Little delivered Daisy, a large white lab she was caring for while its owners were away on vacation. There was no room for Daisy at Little's aunt's house, and she was one of the last dogs taken in at the shelter.

A handwritten sign was quickly pasted on the shelter door: "Dogs are full."

"A lot of people don't think of an emergency plan for their pets, so we get a lot of them here," Chiotasso said.

People were asked to foster dogs and cats to make room for the evacuees.

In nearby White Rock, Kelly Bonner joined dozens of families gathered in a parking lot to view the flames and billowing plume of smoke, and to compare stories of the last big fire, the Cerro Grande, in 2000.

Bonner lived in Santa Fe during that fire and ended up hosting 17 evacuees, seven dogs and a bird. This year, now a White Rock resident, she could be the one to evacuate.

Bonner's car was "95 percent packed with photos," and she was ready to go at a moment's notice.

"Today, it really hit me. I was sitting on my porch watching the slurry bombers overhead and hearing the chainsaw as my neighbors cut down the trees around their house," Bonner said. "It was surreal."

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)

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