USA — ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico A raging blaze that has become one of the largest forest fires in New Mexico history left the leader of one Native American community with a sinking feeling Thursday as it burned through cultural sites and threatened an important water source for his people.
Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno declared an emergency for the pueblo because of the damage being done by the Las Conchas fire. It has charred nearly 145 square miles, including 6,000 acres within the pueblo’s watershed.
“This is a fire like we’ve never seen before,” Dasheno told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Nestled in the painted hills at the edge of the Pajarito Plateau, Santa Clara Pueblo has seen its share of fire over the past 13 years. About two-thirds of the tribe’s forests have been burned in that time by fires that started miles outside of the reservation’s boundaries.
This fire has been different because it has moved so fast, Dasheno said.
The fire started Sunday afternoon in the Jemez Mountains southwest of Los Alamos. By Wednesday afternoon, it exploded across the western third of the reservation.
“It happened so quickly,” the governor said. “We were just talking yesterday afternoon with the incident command team about what we would do and how we would attack the situation. Then as we finished the meeting, we went out and saw a huge plume.”
Dasheno said his people are devastated by the news coming in from the front lines of the firefighting efforts cultural sites destroyed, forest resources lost and plants and animals that the pueblo’s 2,800 residents depend on gone.
“We cried when we saw Mother Nature doing what she was doing to our canyon area. We were helpless,” he said.
Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said he flew over the Santa Clara area Thursday morning. He said the fire dropped into the Santa Clara Canyon and was moving up the north side.
“It’s burning pretty thick in there,” he said.
And that’s not the worst part.
Pueblo officials are worried about the long-term effects of the fire, including flooding. Hills left bare by the blaze are expected to result in sediment and debris in Santa Clara Creek, which supplies the pueblo’s farmers with water to irrigate their crops.
“What we need are the resources to protect against the imminent danger that could occur from flooding, the smoke and health effects,” Dasheno said, adding that the tribe is already talking with members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation.
The governor said he and other pueblo members were continuing to pray Thursday that things would not get worse as erratic winds pushed the flames northward.
“If Mother Nature were to rain, then that would mitigate a lot of the problem. We could find a way to cure the problem,” he said. “But at this point, that’s not occurring. She’s doing the opposite. She’s blowing very, very hot wind and it’s creating a real bad situation for us.”