Firefighters battle blaze closing in on sacred Indian mountain

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 06, 2011 5:49 PM
Firefighters battle blaze closing in on sacred Indian mountain

By Dennis Carroll

SANTA FE, N.M (Reuters) - The rampaging Las Conchas wildfire closed in on sacred Indian lands in New Mexico on Wednesday, burning less than a mile away from the Chicoma Mountain, considered the spiritual center for Pueblo Indians.

Firefighters were hoping to steer the monster blaze around the 11,500-foot mountain, a prominent peak in the Jemez range, said Joe Baca, spokesman for the nearby Santa Clara Pueblo tribe. But the winds were not in firefighters' favor.

"The best case for the mountain is a northwest wind, but we are not expecting that," Brad Pitassi, the spokesman for a multi-agency fire management team, said.

The fire, which last week lapped at the edges of the Los Alamos nuclear complex and forced its closure, has consumed more than 130,000 acres including about 20,000 acres on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation in north-central New Mexico, which encompasses Chicoma Mountain.

Forestry officials said firefighters had managed to contain 30 percent of the burn, but it has marched steadily northeast, scorching more than 80 percent of the forested Santa Clara lands.

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.

Tribal officials spoke on Tuesday with the White House about possible financial help from various federal agencies.

"We are hoping for monies for restoration of the forest once the fire is gone and mitigation in terms of extinguishing the fire," Baca said.

MOVING TOWARD CAVE DWELLINGS

Pitassi said the blaze was also slowly moving toward the ancestral Puye cliff dwellings, a national historic landmark about five miles away. But because of a poor supply of fuel for the blaze and direct action at the line, the dwellings were not considered threatened, he said.

"We have a direct line fire attack and are getting good results," he said.

He also said part of the blaze was creeping closer toward the pueblo village of about 3,800 people, although it remained at least 10 miles away. Rains were expected to arrive to dampen the fire before it reached the village on the eastern edge of the 55,000-acre reservation.

But the anticipated rainstorms also prompted fears of flash floods that could wash unimpeded through scorched and eroded lands stripped of vegetation by the fire, wreaking even more damage.

"That's a great fear now," Baca said.

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)