LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — A smattering of summer rain gave a boost to firefighters battling a huge forest fire near Los Alamos, giving authorities enough confidence Sunday to allow about 12,000 people to return home for the first time in nearly a week.
Residents rolled into town, honking their horns and waving to firefighters as the word got out that the roadblocks were lifted and the narrow two-lane highway cut into the side of a mesa leading to Los Alamos was open. They had fled en masse last week as the fast-moving fire approached the city and its nuclear laboratory.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” yelled Amy Riehl, an assistant manager at the Smith’s grocery store, as she arrived to help keep the store open for returning residents.
“It’s scary, but all of the resources here this time, they were ready. They did a magnificent job,” said Michael Shields, his eyes tearing up as he returned to his apartment in the heart of the town.
The town was last evacuated because of a devastating fire in 2000 that destroyed 200 homes and several businesses and damaged utilities and other county enterprises. This time, residents returned to a town that is completely intact, although the fire scorched 63 homes west of town.
Although the threat to Los Alamos and the nation’s premier nuclear research lab had passed, the mammoth wildfire raging in northern New Mexico was threatening sacred sites of American Indian tribes.
Hundreds of firefighters were working to contain the 189-square-mile fire as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and threatened other pueblos on the Pajarito Plateau.
The area, a stretch of mesas that run more than 15 miles west of Santa Fe, N.M., includes Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Authorities said the fire, burning for eight days Sunday, has been fueled by an exceptionally dry season in the Southwest and erratic winds. Thunderstorms that dropped rain Sunday also brought wind that made the fire burn more aggressively in some areas but pushed the fire back on itself in the north, said Brad Pitassi, a spokesman for the fire command.
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. Crews were helped by rain Saturday afternoon that slowed the fire.
“Hopefully we’ll get two to three more days like this and we’ll be fine,” operations chief Jayson Coil said.
The blaze, the largest ever in New Mexico, 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.
“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.
The tribe also worried that 1.5 million trees planted after the 2000 fire have been destroyed, as well as work to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout to the upper headwaters of the Santa Clara Creek. The tribe called for emergency federal relief.
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.
Meanwhile, hundreds of lab 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 experiments using two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era nuclear bombs.
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.
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.
For Leo and Lorene Beckstead, their first stop in town was the grocery store as they prepared to heed officials’ request that residents stay at home as crews worked on the fire surrounding the town on three sides.
“They did a great job. I think because of the Cerro Grande fire, they learned a lot,” Leo Beckstead said, referring to the blaze in 2000.
Other residents turned back and left as soon as they got home.
“A lot of them are coming in, checking their houses and then leaving because the smoke is so bad,” said Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker. “They’re turning around and leaving Los Alamos.”
High humidity pushed the smoke down into towns and kept it close to the ground, Tucker said.