While the Los Alamos fires are fortunately just news stories to most of us, noted photography collector Michael Mattis found himself, his daughter and his collection all in the path of the rampaging firestorm. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he managed to keep his cool and his notorious sense of humor.
As he told me by phone and email, "It's been quite the surreal week. Joanna [Ed. Note: his 15-year old daughter] and I were practically the last vehicle out of town on Wednesday (the day after my 40th b'day!) after the town-wide evacuation was ordered."
They had loaded up a neighbor's covered pick-up truck with 101 portfolio boxes worth of art. By that time the paved road access to town had been sealed off and they were forced to use a dirt road down the cliff side of the Barranca Mesa, then through 15 miles of San Ildefonso Indian land before finally joining back up with the Los Alamos Highway.
"In the meantime," Mattis said, "what can only be described as a mushroom cloud with a bright orange stem loomed in our rearview mirror. Sort of like the last scene of a Bond movie, where Bond and the girl dive into the bushes as the munitions plant goes up in flames."
Fortunately good friend and photography dealer Andrew Smith was in nearby Santa Fe. Mattis drove to his gallery and unloaded the artwork there. He and his daughter then stayed at the new Smith residence for what Mattis terms the "exodus."
Actually Mattis put his daughter on a plane to New York on the following Saturday so she could visit with her Mom and brothers, who were in Scarsdale, but she returned to Los Alamos for her school's reopening.
Ironically the Mattis' are in the process of moving out of the Los Alamos area.
The ever-puckish Michael told me "as an offering to the fire gods, we left a box of fake Lewis Hine photographs behind, but our offering was rejected as unworthy." His house was one of the fortunate ones that were spared.
Mattis reported, "Another irony is that we just listed our home for sale 90 minutes prior to the evacuation."
In an email to me he described his return on Monday night: "Just got back home yesterday eve as they called off the evacuation, except for the burned out neighborhoods. (Gas isn't back on though, so showering is out of the question.) The creepy thing about driving into town on Trinity, heading North on Diamond Dr. at the hospital, and heading East onto the North Mesa towards Big Rock Loop, is that unless you're looking carefully NOTHING LOOKS DIFFERENT!! True, the mountains to the West are black not green, but I drove home at dusk and it was hard to tell. And the National Guard humvees stationed at all the Westbound cross streets off Diamond with patrolling Guardsmen brandishing rifles is another telltale sign that something is in fact different. But the fire really only hit the houses close to the SF National Forest (now the "Santa Fe National Fire Break") to the West. We're talking 400 homeless families, and we're taking in a couple of them."
Despite the tragedy, Michael still managed to maintain his reputation for the quick quip by ending his email: "Did you ever think you'd see the day that the National Park Service was more lethal than the Postal Service?"
On a more somber note, our good wishes for all the families affected in the blaze and for the brave firefighters fighting it.
One postscript to this story: Mattis sold his house privately almost upon returning to his house.
Now he has to get rid of his ancient Toyota Tercel. Any takers?