The Fire Next Time

in Essays

13864093 w660 The Fire Next Time

“God gave Noah the rain­bow sign,

No more water, the fire next time!”
     — James Baldwin

Fire Diary: July 4, 2011 — Santa Fe, New Mexico

Curious. As the town of Los Alamos filled up with its evac­u­ated inhab­i­tants, most of whom work at the Labs, both the New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal cel­e­brated, with no more news about the fire, which has now grown to 120 thou­sand acres, per­haps four per­cent con­tained, and which con­tin­ues to threaten two pueblo vil­lages, Santa Clara and Cochiti. Journalists, like all of us, mea­sure the impor­tance of an event in terms of how impor­tant the peo­ple are who are threat­ened, or enhanced, by it. Although New Mexico is more tol­er­ant than many places I’ve lived, when it comes to cov­er­age for the pueb­los, ancient, small, and impov­er­ished, keep­ers of vital Native American tra­di­tions, sacred sites, and arti­facts, we are less than pas­sion­ate about not­ing their disasters.

The gov­er­nor of Santa Clara has asked for more help—it seems it was slow in com­ing while the 1200 or so fire­fight­ers were pro­tect­ing Los Alamos. The pueblo has already seen six thou­sand acres of its sacred lands burn (as of two days ago), includ­ing the head­wa­ters of the stream that pro­vides irri­ga­tion. Whether more help is now there, or on the way, is unclear since there is no news that I’ve been able to discover.

For us here in Santa Fe, the worst has passed, since we are directly across the val­ley from Los Alamos and there­fore most dis­turbed by heavy smoke and the ter­ri­fy­ing vision of huge plumes ris­ing thou­sand of feet into the air. The smoke has now mostly dis­si­pated, although when I look to the west, a thick layer hangs over the Jemez moun­tains behind Los Alamos—the moun­tains them­selves are hidden—and spreads to the north and south as far as the eye can see.

But the sense of urgency is gone: the fire next time seems to have dis­ap­peared from our imag­i­na­tion even as it con­tin­ues to grow and burn in places we can’t see.

Yet there is a reminder: the orange net­ting that is spread across the entrance to every trail­head and park­ing lot. There is nowhere now to hike, and we are all wait­ing to see whether the sale of fire­works, con­tin­u­ing here and there, will mean a new blaze. The gov­er­nor has declared a state of emer­gency, and some large retail­ers, like Albertsons, have pulled fire­works off the their shelves, but they are still being sold in tents along the high­way, sev­eral on pueblo land.

“Vanity of van­i­ties,” my Virginia grand­mother used to quote from Scripture, to my dis­may. “All is vanity.”


Fire Diary: July 1, 2011 — Santa Fe, New Mexico

Overnight the Las Cochas fire grew from 91 thou­sand acres to 100 thou­sand, mak­ing it the largest fire in New Mexico his­tory. 1201 fire­fight­ers, includ­ing 6 hot­shot crews, have kept it away from Los Alamos and its nuclear waste so far, but two pueb­los, Cochiti to the east and south of Santa Fe and Santa Clara to the north, are burn­ing. The fire is mak­ing short runs today, whipped by 35 mile an hour wind, spot­ting less than a mile ahead, with flank­ing and back­ing fires set on the east and west sides.

Near Cochiti, the Dixon Apple orchard, planted in the 1940’s and run by descen­dents, only lost ten per­cent of its trees—they pro­duce the rare cham­pagne apple—but all of its houses and out­build­ings. The own­ers say their life there is fin­ished although they will con­tinue to work the orchard and hope for a har­vest in September. Asked how peo­ple can help, they replied, “Please buy our apples.”

The fire invad­ing Santa Clara came rush­ing down from the moun­tains; its huge plume was vis­i­ble above an enor­mous road­side sign: JUST WIN, BABY—the ad for the Santa Clara casino. All the pueb­los in New Mexico have build casi­nos in the last decade.

It’s not for an out­sider like me to know, but as the fire devoured “cul­tural sites, plants and ani­mals that the Santa Clara depend on for their liveli­hood and cul­ture,” accord­ing to their Governor, Walter Dasheno, there will prob­a­bly be cer­e­monies in the kiva, as long as it stands, seek­ing deliv­er­ance from the curse of modernity.

This is a par­tic­u­larly sad moment for Santa Clara, scorched by wild­fires four times in the last 13 years, none of which started on their land. In 2000, after a 140 year strug­gle, the pueblo finally regained its ances­tral lands in Santa Clara canyon; its water­shed is called “P’opii Khanu” in Tewa, the source of the creek the pueblo depends on to irri­gate its fields. The gov­er­nor is plead­ing for more fire pro­tec­tion (the main thrust has been to pro­tect Los Alamos) and for help restor­ing land the pueblo regards as sacred and has care­fully maintained.

I would never know the level of risk, nor would any­one else, if it were not for the infor­ma­tion put on its web­site by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a not for profit watch­dog group here in Santa Fe. They have learned that a back burn was started yes­ter­day at Technical Area 16—this may have been one of the back burns men­tioned on the fire report—which has been used for test­ing high explo­sives, ura­nium and depleted ura­nium, since 1943. Due to our Democratic Senator Tom Udall, the EPA has sent in large air mon­i­tor­ing devices which for some rea­son have been set up north and east of Los Alamos, well away from the fire—and the results of their tests will not be avail­able for seven days.


72512pvc062711n The Fire Next Time


Fire Diary: June 30, 2011 — Santa Fe, New Mexico

When I drove to my stu­dio this morn­ing, the road was blocked. It is the road that leads to the national for­est and peo­ple have still been try­ing to hike there although all the trails are marked off with yel­low tape. The smil­ing man with the big truck, the block­ades and the STOP signs let me through, but it is a reminder of how dan­ger­ous it is to live within a mile or so of the forest—burning two miles north in the now-forgotten Pacheco fire. All atten­tion is on Los Alamos, across the valley.

The lawyers for the fire­works manufacturers—a much more pow­er­ful group than I’ve realized—pushed through leg­is­la­tion years ago mak­ing it ille­gal to ban fire­works in the state; most are sold in big tents on the edge of pueblo reser­va­tions. Governor Martinez has ordered a state of emer­gency, and pleaded with peo­ple here not to buy and set off fire­works, but we are plagued, as well as blessed, with indi­vid­u­als who have a sense of immor­tal­ity, bol­stered with bravado, and I think July Fourth will see some explo­sions. We are six months into the worst drought since records were first kept, in 1892, and still deal­ing with the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs claim that their “legacy waste”—what a term—is safe from the fire encroach­ing on their property—and so any­thing, at this point, is possible.

The Labs have hired a plane, or planes, to fly above the place with air-monitoring devices, but gen­er­a­tions of secrecy about their doings remain in place: they don’t reveal what par­ti­cles the devices are record­ing, only that every­thing, as always, is per­fectly safe.

And it’s not just the labs. Yesterday I walked up to the koi pond I built years ago, set on a hill in the mid­dle of pin­ion and juniper as dry as straw. Three peo­ple were sit­ting on the wooden deck, smok­ing. They were in no hurry to leave; the woman tried to mol­lify me by claim­ing she loves the fish.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add your own }

Elaine Avila June 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Our thoughts are with you…..


Spence Porter June 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Good wishes!


Candelora Versace July 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm

You make such an important point, Sallie. Sharing!


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