On Sunday, citizens of Los Alamos, New Mexico, got some good news: efforts to contain the 123,000-acre Las Conchas fire had progressed sufficiently that officials were able to lift a mandatory evacuation order, in effect for the city since last Monday.
That doesn’t mean the fire is under control—far from it—but at this point, the more intense burning is occurring north of Los Alamos, largely on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation, a roughly 49,000-acre rectangle of desert and forest that rises, from east to west, into a zone of rugged, beautiful woods and streams in the Jemez Mountains.
Unfortunately, the fire is ravaging the highest-altitude portions of the reservation, which includes an important watershed known as P’opii Khanu, the headwaters of Santa Clara Creek. Among other things, the creek serves as an irrigation stream for Santa Clara farmers, flowing down through the pueblo itself (which isn’t threatened by fire) before emptying into the Rio Grande. But its importance transcends agricultural utility.
“Our canyon is the source of our Santa Clara Creek that we rely upon for irrigation,” said Santa Clara Pueblo Governor Walter Deseno after the fire punched through from the south on June 29. “But, more than that, it was a beautiful place of abundance in wildlife, clean water, culturally significant trees, and medicinal plants. This is the fourth time that fire has impacted our homelands, and all of them have begun outside our reservation.”
The pueblo regained control of the headwaters from the U.S. government in 2000, capping a 140-year struggle. Over the past 13 years, according to pueblo officials, fires have burned two-thirds of their forested land, including 8,300 acres scorched by the 1998 Oso Complex fire and the 2000 Cerro Grande fire. The Las Conchas fire has been a serious blow to restoration efforts associated with those blazes. Pueblo officials believe, for example, that most of the 1.5 million trees planted to reforest Cerro Grande burn zones have been destroyed. The fire will also scuttle much of the work done in a project to restore Rio Grande Cutthroat trout to Santa Clara Creek.
On Sunday afternoon, with flames still chewing up new ground, Outside editorial director Alex Heard (@alexheard) sat down with the pueblo’s Lieutenant Governor, Joseph B. Tafoya, to talk about the fire’s impact on the people and culture of Santa Clara.
Outside: Where do things stand with the fire right now?
Tafoya: Our total loss in acreages is up to almost 14,000, and the fire is still active, still going strong. Areas on the north side of our reservation and also on the west side are still burning.
Some fires are very intense, and some go through in a “mosaic” pattern, leaving unburned trees standing amid burned-over acres. Generally, how intense is this fire as it goes through?
In the middle of our reservation, it’s pretty intense. We have some moonscapes and the potential for flooding. When the rains come, we’re hoping for a nice drizzle, but we can’t tell Mother Nature what to do, and it might come as a big downpour.
When that happens, what’s the result?
That will result in a big flash flood.
I saw you for the first time last week, when you stood and spoke at a public meeting about the fire in the town of Pojoaque. At that time you said, “We’re worried about the fire coming into our land.” Obviously, that happened. Can you describe how it felt to realize that the firefighters’ line wasn’t going to hold?
A lot of us grew up there when we were kids. We try to educate and show our kids how valuable this reservation is up in the prime lands that we have, the forested areas. But this is the last generation that’s going to see it, to see how it was. And that’s where that emotional state is coming in. It’s going to take ... probably our children, our grandchildren, and their children, and their children—it’s going to take several generations for it to be the way we saw it.
Could you talk a bit about the importance of these areas in your cultural history?
We’ve been occupying this land since time immemorial. Our ancestors dealt with these situations, too, and survived, whether it be drought, fires, warfare, or all three. That’s the reason we’re still here, because of that perseverance. We’ve been here a lot of years.
Generally speaking, in pueblo life, we do our ceremonies in conjunction with our land, with our water, our air. We consider everything alive, down to the smallest rock and the smallest insect, because there are spirits in those things. And the spirits are what we absorb, whether it be with the land, the game animals, and the plants—edible plants and medicinal plants.
What’s an area up there that was particularly important to you as a young person?
One special place is P’opii Khanu. It’s a watershed covering about five to six thousand acres, shaped like a triangle. There are two streams that come out of there, including Santa Clara Creek and one called Turkey Creek.
Hearing the name Turkey Creek reminds me of something. When I toured the Puye cliff dwellings once—the famous ruins that are still to the east of the fire line—our tribal guide told us the story of the Turkey Girl. Can you tell people how that goes?
Sure. There was a girl living in this other village across from Puye. She used to take care of the turkeys. Her parents apparently died when she was little, and this family that took care of her just used her for labor. She didn’t have anything that the other sisters of these parents had.
The turkeys felt sorry for her one time because she wanted to go to this dance ceremony that was happening in Puye. But she was just like Cinderella: dirty, no clothes. So the turkeys gave her some clothes, transforming her like a fairy godmother would do.
She went over to the ceremony. Nobody knew who she was. She had to come back within a certain amount of time, but she overstayed her stay, and she turned back into who she was. The people at Puye were kind of angry, so she had to run away. And run away is what she did, back to her village. And there’s a place that’s special, where the turkeys took her.
Is there anything outsiders can do for your pueblo, in terms of volunteering time or donating money?
Our contact person for volunteers is Joe Baca. His number is 505-929-7061. In the near future, we’ll be coming out with some numbers for various loan institutions that have graciously set up accounts for the tribe. We’ll make these institutions public, because we don’t want anybody to go out in the name of Santa Clara, raising money. With this fire, there have been people out there, taking money from people through scams.
Your feast day is August 12th. Should people come, or is this a year when you need to be left alone?
Everybody is welcome and they should come on out.