SANTA CLARA PUEBLO, N.M. — A wildfire that forced federal employees to flee the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb neared the sacred sites of several American Indian tribes on Saturday, raising fears that tribal lands passed down for generations would be destroyed.
More than 1,600 firefighters were working to stop the 177-square-mile fire in northern New Mexico as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and threatened other pueblos on the Parajito Plateau.
The area, a stretch of mesas that run more than 15 miles west of Santa Fe, includes the town of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratory.
Residents have worried that the blaze would reach Cold War-era waste stored on lab property, releasing contaminants into the air.
But tribes have turned their concerns to the cabins, pueblos and watersheds that are in the path of the largest wildfire in state history.
"We were also praying on our knees, we were asking the Creator in our cultural way to please forgive us, 'What have we done?' " Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno said. "Bring moisture so that the Mother Fire can be stopped. But that was not meant to be."
About 2,800 tribe members live in the dusty village nestled in New Mexico's high desert, where they depend on ponds that provide water for irrigation.
The blaze reached the Santa Clara Pueblo's watershed earlier last week, damaging the cultural site and scorching 20 square miles of tribal forest. Fire Operations Chief Jerome MacDonald said it was within miles of the centuries-old Puye Cliff Dwellings, a national historic landmark.
Pueblo fire Chief Mel Tafoya said it was unclear whether cabins in the canyon leading to the forested area or the irrigation ponds survived the wildfire. Members of the state's congressional delegation have promised federal help for the tribe pending a damage assessment.
Meanwhile, as the fire risk to the Los Alamos National Laboratory receded, hundreds of employees were returning to prepare operations and thousands of experiments for the scientists and technicians who were forced to evacuate days ago. Among the work put on hold were two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era nuclear bombs.