SANTA CLARA PUEBLO, N.M. — A wildfire that forced federal employees to flee the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb neared the sacred sites of several American Indian tribes on Saturday, raising fears that tribal lands passed down for generations would be destroyed.
More than 1,600 firefighters were working to stop the fire in northern New Mexico as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and threatened other pueblos on the Parajito 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, the nation’s premier nuclear weapons laboratory.
The blaze 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 by the 177-square-mile blaze, the largest wildfire in state history.
“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.
Dasheno said that despite the pain of losing an estimated 75 percent of the tribe’s forest to three recent fires, “we are going to come back.”
“We’re going to tell the story of what occurred to our children and grandchildren. And yes, we’re going to cry,” he said.
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.
Authorities said the fire, in its seventh day, has been fueled by an exceptionally dry season in the Southwest and erratic winds. It surpassed a 2003 fire that took five months to burn through 94,000 acres in the Gila National Forest.
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. Firefighters were hoping to make progress with higher humidity Saturday, but worried about afternoon thunderstorms in the area.
Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker sent some firefighters home to rest so they could resume regular duties once residents return home.
Hundreds of employees were returning to prepare operations and thousands of experiments for the scientists and technicians who were forced to evacuate days ago. Among the work put on hold were two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era nuclear bombs.
A small grass fire caused by a squirrel in an electrical transformer on lab property was quickly extinguished. The fire was at a substation that houses the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, which is used for nuclear physics experiments including weapons research.
A fire on lab property earlier in the week raised concerns about contamination being released into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency sent a monitoring plane to augment air testing by lab and state health officials. Lab officials said nothing abnormal was in the smoke.
The blaze remained in Los Alamos Canyon, which runs past the old Manhattan Project site and a 1940s-era dump site of low-level radioactive waste, as well as the site of a nuclear reactor that was demolished in 2003.
Employees were checking filters in air handling systems to ensure they weren’t affected by smoke and restarting computer systems shut down when the lab closed.
“Once we start operation phases for the laboratory, it will take about two days to bring everyone back and have the laboratory fully operational,” Lab Director Charles McMillan said.
Authorities didn’t say when they would lift an evacuation order that began Monday for the town of Los Alamos, home to 12,000 people.
Firefighters planned to burn out areas near homes west of the town to remove combustible material and ensure the fire doesn’t creep through an area burned in a 2000 blaze, fire operations chief Jerome MacDonald said.