Firefighters battle blaze near sacred Indian mountain

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jul 06, 2011 11:33 PM
Firefighters battle blaze near 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 a 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 working in firefighters' favor.

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

The fire, which last week lapped at the edges of the Los Alamos nuclear complex and forced its temporary closure, has consumed more than 130,000 acres, including about 20,000 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 overall burning. But the fire has moved steadily northeast, scorching more than 80 percent of Santa Clara's forested 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.

FLAMES MOVING TOWARD CAVE DWELLINGS

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

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

He said part of the blaze was also 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 of the coming Southwest monsoon have also prompted fears of flash floods that can now 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.

To the south in Los Alamos, life continued to return to normal on Wednesday with the re-opening of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the hub of America's nuclear weapons industry. It had been closed since June 27.

"Everybody's back today," said lab spokesman Kevin Roark, who said a few managers had returned on Tuesday. "We are still going slowly in some areas just to be safe."

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)