By Zelie Pollon
SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Firefighters, taking advantage of cooling temperatures, gained ground on Friday against a pair of blazes in New Mexico, one of them threatening dozens of archeological sites and sacred Native American landmarks west of Santa Fe.
The so-called Thompson Ridge fire, burning for a week in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, had scorched at least 14,000 acres of rugged forest lands as of Friday, with containment lines carved around 10 percent of the blaze so far, fire information officer Jan Bardwell said.
Bardwell said fire crews planned to begin assessing damage to Redondo Peak, a mountaintop considered sacred to many Native Americans that was the focus of intense protection efforts as flames raced over the area earlier in the week.
"According to the aerial flights, it looks really good, but we'll know more today when they get back," Bardwell said. "Firefighters did such a good job protecting historic and sacred sites throughout the caldera."
Fire officials said the preserve contains about 660 sites of cultural or archaeological significance, and that 200 of those were located in the projected path of advancing flames at one point.
In addition to saving various areas regarded as sacred to Native Americans, firefighters managed to protect a number of sites containing artifacts of early human settlement, as well as some historic ranch buildings and an ancient grove of trees called the "History Grove."
"Because trees of this age contain all this information, including climate information, saving them from the burning is a tremendous value to us," said Ana Steffen, a cultural resources coordinator for the Valles Caldera.
Improved weather conditions also helped firefighters secure more containment lines around the Tres Lagunas Fire, which was sparked on May 30 by a downed power line and has continued to burn east of Santa Fe.
Fire officials said that blaze had charred more than 10,000 acres and was one-third contained by Friday. Authorities ordered the evacuation of 144 homes at the fire's start, but they allowed residents of about a dozen homes to return on Wednesday.
Because incoming storms were bringing higher winds and humidity but very little rain, fire officials said they were wary of lightning strikes that could spark additional fires across New Mexico's drought-ravaged landscape.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)
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