LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – A smattering of 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.