By Dennis Carroll
SANTA FE, N.M (Reuters) - Firefighters battling New Mexico's monster Las Conchas wildfire fought on Tuesday to beat the blaze back from around the sacred Chicoma Mountain, a peak considered the spiritual center for a nearby Indian tribe.
The fire, which last week lapped at the edges of the Los Alamos nuclear complex and forced its closure, has already consumed nearly 15,000 acres on the Santa Clara Indian reservation since Sunday as it spread northward.
Brad Pitassi, a spokesman for a multi-agency fire command team, said the wildfire, New Mexico's largest, had seen "very little growth" on the reservation since Monday. A fireline drawn to protect the pueblo continued to hold, and no homes or other buildings were in immediate danger.
"Winds from the east are blowing the fire west" and away from the pueblo, he said.
Tribal spokesman Joe Baca said the fire had destroyed 80 percent of forested lands on the 55,000-acre reservation, which includes the Chicoma Mountain. The pueblo village of 3,800 is located on the eastern edge of the reservation.
Baca has said that because of the heavy smoke and poor access, it was not known which sacred or culturally important sites, if any, had been damaged. But ancient cliff dwellings had so far been spared.
The Las Conchas blaze has consumed more than 127,000 acres and is 27 percent contained as it burns toward the north away from Los Alamos. More than 2,000 firefighters are working to control its spread, according to officials.
Now ranked as the largest wild-lands blaze ever recorded in New Mexico, the fire surpassed the previous record set in 2003 by the 94,000-acre Dry Lakes Fire in the Gila National Forest.
It has destroyed 63 homes and 32 other buildings.
LOS ALAMOS RETURNING TO NORMAL
Firefighters were able to secure containment lines around the Pajarito Mountain Ski Resort in the Jemez Mountains, immediately northwest of Los Alamos. Forestry officials said one ski lift was lost to the fire.
Another focus of firefighters on Tuesday was southwest of Los Alamos in the Peralta Canyon, although no structures were threatened there, Pitassi said.
In Los Alamos, home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's nuclear weapons nexus, life was quickly returning to normal as residents continued to return from a forced evacuation.
The Los Alamos lab has said it planned to reopen on Wednesday, after laboratory personnel check each of the more than 2,000 buildings on its 36-square-mile campus.
The sky had turned blue again, no longer its dramatic dark orange hue. But smoke from the fire still lingered in the mountain crevices nearby and occasionally wafted over the town of 10,000 residents.
Residents were still being told to be on the lookout for forest animals displaced by the fire, such as the two large does that dodged traffic on Tuesday near a local hospital. At least three black bears have also been seen in neighborhoods of Los Alamos.
Forestry and police investigators have said the origin of the mammoth blaze was a tree falling on power lines during strong winds on June 26.
At one point last week, the fire's edge was reported just 2 miles from a collection of about 20,000 metal drums containing plutonium-contaminated clothing and other waste stored on a corner of the Los Alamos lab property.
Nuclear watchdog groups and some citizens had raised concerns about the fire possibly unleashing residual ground contamination left from decades of experimental explosions and waste disposal in the area.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)