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Tribes fear loss of sacred sites near NM fire
Question of the Day
SANTA CLARA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) - A mammoth wildfire raging in northern New Mexico is threatening sacred sites of American Indian tribes, after it forced thousands to evacuate from a town and shut a major nuclear lab.
Hundreds of firefighters were working Sunday to contain the 195-square-mile fire as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and threatened other pueblos on the Pajarito Plateau.
The area, a stretch of mesas that run more than 15 miles west of Santa Fe, N.M., includes the town of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Authorities said the fire, burning for eight days Sunday, has been fueled by an exceptionally dry season in the Southwest and erratic winds.
Crews have managed to keep the fire in Los Alamos Canyon several miles upslope from the federal laboratory, boosting confidence that it no longer posed an immediate threat to the facility or the nearby town. Crews were helped by rain on Saturday afternoon that slowed the fire.
“Hopefully we’ll get two to three more days like this and we’ll be fine,” operations chief Jayson Coil said.
On Sunday, officials said they were lifting the evacuation order for Los Alamos, which had been in place for nearly a week, allowing residents to return to their homes.
The blaze, the largest ever in New Mexico, reached the Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed in the canyon this week, damaging the area that the tribe considers its birthplace and scorching 20 square miles of tribal forest. Fire operations chief Jerome MacDonald said it was within miles of the centuries-old Puye Cliff Dwellings, a national historic landmark.
Tribes were worried that cabins, pueblos and watersheds could be destroyed.
“We were also praying on our knees, we were asking the Creator in our cultural way to please forgive us, `What have we done?’” Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno said. “Bring moisture so that the Mother Fire can be stopped. But that was not meant to be.”
About 2,800 tribe members live in a dusty village nestled in New Mexico’s high desert, near the mouth of Santa Clara Canyon where aspen and blue spruce forests provide relief from the dry desert and ponds provide water for irrigation. The canyon is north of the town of Los Alamos.
Pueblo Fire Chief Mel Tafoya said it was unclear whether cabins in the canyon or the ponds survived the blaze. Members of the state’s congressional delegation have promised federal help for the tribe pending a damage assessment.
The tribe also worried that 1.5 million trees planted after the 2000 fire have been destroyed, as well as work to restore the Rio Grande cuthroat trout to the upper headwaters of the Santa Clara Creek. The tribe called for emergency federal relief.
To Santa Clara’s south, Cochiti Pueblo was also worried about damage to ground cover affecting its watershed.
Archaeological sites at the northern end of the blaze at Bandelier National Monument hold great significance to area tribes. About half of the park has burned, Bandelier superintendent Jason Lott said.
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