Los Alamos fire burns Indian land; more high winds feared

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. - More than three-quarters of Los Alamos was reopened to residents Monday, while the fire that burned down 260 homes raged out of control on other fronts, including an Indian reservation where historic sites have been destroyed.

Nearly 9,000 residents were allowed back into the less-severely damaged parts of this town of 11,000, which was evacuated entirely on Wednesday. Police Chief Rich Melton said they might have to get by without gas and electricity for a week.

The Los Alamos nuclear laboratory remained closed.

Despite the primitive conditions in Los Alamos, traffic quickly backed up on the winding road into the city from Pojoaque High School in Santa Fe, which had served as an evacuation center. Once back home, Bill Starkovich immediately set about watering his flowers, mowing the lawn and sweeping a light coating of ash off his driveway.

''I wanted to make the house look nice for my wife,'' he said.

The gigantic blaze, with an 89-mile perimeter, was burning into a canyon Monday on the edge of an Indian reservation, where tribal fire spokesman Alvin Warren said it destroyed some ''culturally sensitive archaeological sites'' over the weekend. He did not elaborate.

So far firefighters have managed to keep the flames away from the tribal homes at the Santa Clara Pueblo, where about 1,500 people live. However, the fire came within a quarter-mile of cliff dwellings in a popular hunting and fishing area about 15 miles northeast of Los Alamos.

In all, the 44,000-acre blaze was 28 percent contained. More than 1,500 firefighters worked furiously to surround it.

''Any time they see a plume of smoke, it will be attacked vigorously,'' fire spokesman Jim Paxon said. ''Today, we're mopping up and holding the line.'' But Paxon warned: ''This does not mean the total threat of fire to Los Alamos is gone. It's diminished.''

The main worry was the National Weather Service's forecast of wind gusting to 50 mph Tuesday. Firefighters have said it may be more than a week before other evacuees can return and weeks before the blaze is out.

The wind was at 50 mph when the fire, which was set by the government to clear brush, first jumped into Los Alamos on Wednesday, forcing the evacuation of a total of 25,000 people.

Seven thousand residents of suburban White Rock were allowed back home Sunday, and Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug MacDonald said officials were sure there would be no problem in reopening 80 percent of Los Alamos while the fire continued to burn Monday.

''We feel confident or we would not make the recommendation to come back,'' he said. ''We evacuated once and we don't want to evacuate twice.''

Most of the homes in the reopened area appeared to have survived the flames without suffering damage any more serious than dried-out lawns and wilted petunias and tulips.

At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, spokeswoman Kay Roybal said officials were checking to see whether the facilities might be ready to reopen. They had been closed a full week as of Monday.

Officials planned to take air samples Monday to check for radioactivity from the lab.

The Los Alamos fire was started May 4 on Bandelier National Monument by National Park Service officials hoping to clear brush and deadwood. But the blaze raged out of control. Park Superintendent Roy Weaver has been placed on leave pending an investigation.

To the north, firefighters tried to keep the fire from spreading farther into the Santa Clara Indian Pueblo or onto the Baca Ranch, a majestic 95,000-acre volcanic area being purchased by the Forest Service.

Warren said the fire had consumed more than 6,000 acres of Pueblo land - ''more than 10 percent of our reservation.'' Pueblo Gov. Denny Gutierrez said the fire was burning near a creek that the tribe depends on for its water.

''It's our lifeline coming down from that canyon,'' he said. ''Our watershed is there, cultural matters in the valley. It's very devastating.''

Officials said a total of 405 families have lost their homes in the blaze.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said the state's congressional delegation will meet Tuesday in Washington to begin planning the government compensation effort.

In southern New Mexico, a plane assisting bombers dropping fire retardant on another fire, a 20,717-acre fire in the Sacramento Mountains, crashed Monday, and state police said both people aboard were killed. That fire was 50 percent contained Monday.


On the Net: Los Alamos National Laboratory: http://www.lanl.gov/worldview

Bandelier National Monument: http://www.nps.gov/band


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment