LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - The threat of wildfire reaching the Los Alamos nuclear lab and the town that surrounds it eased after crews made progress under cloud cover and rain, but concerns turned Friday to lands held sacred by Native American tribes as firefighters braced for a hot, dry weekend.
The fire has blackened more than 162 square miles in the last six days, making it the largest fire in New Mexico history. Erratic winds and dry fuels helped it surpass the 2003 Dry Lakes fire, which took five months to burn through 94,000 acres in the Gila National Forest.
More than 1,200 firefighters were on the lines Friday trying to slow down the flames as National Guard troops, state police officers and local deputies patrolled neighborhoods and enforced evacuation orders.
“This is the biggest fire in the history of our state and it’s not over yet,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said during a briefing in the heart of Los Alamos. “We’re all very keenly aware of that.”
The Los Alamos National Laboratory remained closed, and fire officials said there was no chance the thousands of evacuated residents and lab employees would be able to resume their normal lives Friday.
Still, the fire chiefs in charge of battling the massive blaze were confident since their crews were keeping flames from spreading down a canyon that leads to the lab and the town.
The challenge Friday was stopping the flames from doing more damage to the lands of Santa Clara Pueblo. The fire had made a four-mile run north toward the reservation, hitting the pueblo’s watershed and cultural sites that are scattered on the Pajarito Plateau.
Fire operations section chief Jerome Macdonald said parts of the fire in Santa Clara canyon burned hot while others saw less damage because of overnight temperatures and lighter winds.
Conditions in the area are so dry that the fire has been burning downed trees that were scorched in the huge Cerro Grande fire in 2000. It also burned through moisture-rich aspen trees to push into the canyon.
“This is a fire like we’ve never seen before,” Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
He said his people are devastated by the news coming in from the front lines of the firefighting efforts _ cultural sites destroyed, forest resources lost and plants and animals that the pueblo’s 2,800 residents depend on gone.
“We cried when we saw Mother Nature doing what she was doing to our canyon area. We were helpless,” Dasheno said.
He said the tribe has discussed the possibility of evacuating if the fire grew closer. Community meetings were being held each day to keep residents informed.
Santa Clara is not the only Indian community to feel the effects of the fire. Much of the plateau _ which includes hundreds of archaeological sites at Bandelier National Monument _ holds great significance to the surrounding tribes.
To the south, Cochiti Pueblo was also worried about its watershed.