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 Pajarito Plateau.
The area, a stretch of mesas that runs 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 last 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.