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New Mexico fire encroaches on sacred Native American grounds

Roughly 13,000 acres within Santa Clara Canyon, including sacred and archeological sites, have been charred in the Las Conchas fire.

July 02, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • The largest fire in New Mexico history has burned areas in Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos.
The largest fire in New Mexico history has burned areas in Valles Caldera… (Jae C. Hong, Associated…)

Several Native American tribes are lamenting the damage to sacred land and archeological sites caused by the largest fire in New Mexico state history.

The Las Conchas fire has charred about 13,000 acres within the Santa Clara Canyon, an area of great significance to those who live in Santa Clara Pueblo, a Native American community north of Santa Fe.

"This is a fire like we've never seen before," said Santa Carla Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno.

The burned area accounts for nearly 25% of the reservation's 55,000 acres, and the blaze is expected to consume more land in the coming days.

Firefighters have so far been able to protect some of the ancient Puye Cliff Dwellings, a national historic landmark. The tribe left the dwellings in the 14th century to settle in their current location.

When officials attempted to survey damage in the rest of the canyon in recent days, they were stymied by thick smoke, Dasheno said.

The loss of the ancient cultural sites and wildlife is a blow to the 2,800 Pueblo residents, who continue to pray that Mother Nature will bring relief in the form of rain, Dasheno said.

"We cry because what our forefathers were able to take care [of] for us is being destroyed by fire," he said. "With Mother Nature, we can never control what she can or can't do."

At the Bandelier National Monument, nearly 1,300 of the 3,000 sites atop the Pajarito Plateau held sacred by area tribes have been affected by the fire, said park superintendent Jason Lott. The sites include pueblo dwellings, man-made caves and farming areas, some 10,000 years old.

On Saturday, more than 1,600 firefighters battled the blaze, which was 6% contained and has charred about 113,700 acres total.

In Los Alamos, authorities said crews have been able to keep the fire away from a canyon leading to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratory.

Since Monday, nearly 12,000 people have been evacuated from the town. Although evacuation orders have not been lifted, officials have begun preparing for the return of residents, though it is unclear when that will be.

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