Environment | National

Native Sun News: Wildfire damages sacred sites in New Mexico

The following story was written and reported by Kate Saltzetein. All content © Native Sun News.

LOS ALAMOS, NEW MEXICO — The Las Conchas fire has raged in New Mexico for more than a week now, burning forest lands and sacred sites on two pueblos near Los Alamos and Santa Fe.

There are nineteen pueblos in New Mexico varying in population from a few hundred to a few thousand.

According to recent wire reports, the fire has burned about 130,000 total acres creating smoke throughout the state. The fire is thought to be about 30 percent contained. The town of Los Alamos, the home of National Laboratories, was evacuated for several days.

At Santa Clara Pueblo, 24 miles east of Santa Fe 15,400 acres of forest lands have burned, “that’s one-quarter of the reservation, or 80 percent of our forested lands,” said Joe Baca, public relations officer at the pueblo, in a telephone interview. “That’s land used for hunting, fishing and agriculture. It’s quite a blow. The intensity of the fire is leaving ash.” A fireline to stop the spread of the fire has been established by the U.S. Forest Service on the eastern edge of the tribal lands, Baca continued.

The fireline is 12 miles from the pueblo village where several thousand people live. So far there have been no injuries but it is not known how many structures have burned.

Many cultural areas of the reservation are sacred to the pueblo and Baca could not go into detail about them. But he said that one popular tourist attraction known as the Puye Cliffs which contain ancient cliff dwellings is being protected.

There are sacred sites and cultural properties within the fire area, he said.

“We don’t know yet how these places have been damaged. They are traditional and religious sites but the intensity of the fire prevents us from checking them," Baca said. "We have not been able to do a real assessment because of the smoke and the intense fire.”

Tribal officials are establishing an evacuation plan in case it’s needed.

“The eastern edge is contained and holding. The need to use an evacuation plan is small. It’s dangerous. But winds have been pushing the fire away from the pueblo lately,” Baca said. “I worry about the severity and intensity of the burn.”

The tribe has been meeting with the U.S. Forest Service and with firefighters from across the country. The Department of the Interior has been meeting with the tribal council to assess damages and restoration costs, Baca said.

“People from the U.S. Forest Service said this is most unusual, the most intense fire they’ve experienced in their lives,” he said. “A drought and low humidity have led to dry timber and the inferno that has followed.

Tribal officials have been quoted in the media saying that attention was focused on Los Alamos while ignoring the Santa Clara pueblo but these reports are false, Baca said adding that he has been pleased with all of the help offered to the pueblo.

There is a dangerously high smoke level in the area and a newsletter has been giving medical advice to people. Community nurses have been visiting people and monitoring the effects, he added.

Also, the monsoon season of rains is beginning and while this will help firefighters put out the flames, Baca fears that there could be flash flooding.

“We are preparing to set up plans for the possible flash floods and because of the intensity of the fire, we will need resources to do reforestation.”

The tribe is working with the New Mexico congressional delegation, the White House and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez to help with the damage and the reforestation, Baca added.

“I want to thank people for their prayers, assistance, volunteering and donations,” he said.

Meanwhile, leaders at nearby Cochiti pueblo, 35 miles southwest of Santa Fe, have expressed concern that the fire could get closer to their reservation.

“It has burned evergreens that we use for dances, and it has affected animals,” said Dwight Mody, Cochiti’s Lieutenant Governor in a telephone interview.

Two firefighters have been injured but Cochiti Pueblo residents have been spared injury, Mody said. But smoke inhalation is a problem and could lead to illness especially in young children, the elderly and anyone with respiratory problems, Mody added.

Some sacred sites have been burned on the pueblo, but Mody could not give details because these are areas that are not known to outsiders.

Sites on the reservation that are visited by tourists including Tent Rocks, Cochiti Lake and the golf course have been spared so far, he said.

“The wind went westward and pushed the fire back towards the mountains. The smoke is not as intense” as before.

“We are trying to protect our water resources,” he added but said that there is no evacuation plan for the pueblo.

Firefighters from different parts of the country have been helping control the fire. “We hope and pray and I have confidence in the firefighters. They put their lives on the line,” Mody said.

Skies in the area are smoky at different times during the day. The tribe has scheduled meetings about the fire every morning at 6 a.m. for updates.

(Kate Saltzetein can be reached at salty223@aol.com)

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