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.
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.
Fire Diary: June 29, 2011 – Santa Fe, New Mexico
The wind changed to the southeast during the night, then dropped, and heavy smoke settled over Santa Fe. People are buying paper masks—“You have to soak them in water or they won’t work,” Tom the druggist told me. Across the valley, the fire at Los Alamos is now 3 percent contained but this means little in terms of smoke; twelve houses there have been burned and everyone except for a couple of holdouts is gone. Twelve thousand people have been spread all over the county, with friends and in casino hotels.
There is still no word about how close the fire is to the nuclear waste containment sites at the Labs; my friend Susan remembers going up with other photographers and journalists during the 2000 Cerro Grande fire and photographing a huge concrete pad where thousands of barrels of waste sat waiting to be taken south to storage in caverns at Carlsbad (a decade ago, we fought valiantly but fruitlessly to prevent this use of friable salt caverns). Now even more barrels are waiting, covered with a “fabric dome” which must prevent them from suffering sunburn. Annoyed by questions, the lab director announced querulously, “There is absolutely no risk. None.” He did not give any reasons.
The birds are eerily quiet this morning except for the hummingbirds, persistently attacking my feeder. Ravens, said to be among the smartest of the birds, circle and swoop erratically in groups of five; I haven’t seen them behaving like this before.
A call has gone out to donate toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant for the six hundred fire fighters at Los Alamos .When I took my donation to the Food Depot, people were bringing in shopping carts of paper towels and food which was not wanted. Yet how useful it is, for us, to bring something, no matter what purpose it serves, or doesn’t. “I have good friends up there,” a woman told me. We depend on these strangers for our lives.
Fire Diary: June 28, 2011 – Santa Fe, New Mexico
This morning at eight am the Las Conchas fire has burned 60 thousand acres of forestland west of Los Alamos—it started two days ago—and was spotting into a technical area at the nuclear labs, those highly secret, Manhattan-era production sites for plutonium triggers and other deadly weapons. In fire-fighting parlance, the fire is “running, crowning, and spotting,” shooting embers half a mile ahead of its advance. Los Alamos was evacuated last night: ten thousand people in an orderly procession of cars, vans and trailers inched down the mountain.
The wind, blowing west with gusts up to thirty miles an hour, is sending large white clouds, almost interchangeable with real clouds, across the valley into Santa Fe, but the greasy ash that covered cars and outdoor furniture yesterday has not arrived.
The issue, as it was with the last fire in 2000, is the safety of the nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos for the past sixty years, some underground, some in concrete buildings, some in barrels under a fabric canopy. As always, we are being told that there is nothing to worry about. It is impossible to know where these barrels under their canopy are reposing, in relation to the fire, or what preparations are being made to prevent them going up in flames. This is always the story. Trust, we are told; believe the reports going up on the web and heard intermittently on the radio (we have no local television station). All will be well.
Meanwhile the sale of fireworks in big white tents along the highway continues; most are on tribal land, not subject to state control, and in fact neither the governor nor the legislature is empowered to prevent their sale anywhere. The rockets are not supposed to fly higher than ten feet, though, which is supposed to be reassuring, and people are urged to go to public displays at various high schools.
Why does it seem so likely that we will have a firework-lit conflagration next weekend? What is the combination of ignorance and bravado that allows men and boys to continue to explode these devices in a landscape so scorched by drought that there is almost nothing green left? The dark, rusty olive pinion and junipers, with their scaled, desiccated trunks, will go up like torches.
There is a desperate human need to exert this terrifying power, so random, so casual, so impossible to stop. Our symbols of dominance—gunners firing on civilians from fighter planes a mile up in the sky—have long since penetrated our imagination, as popular culture roots into a primeval need to destroy.
Friday we will join a drum circle paying for rain. It seems a weak set of symbols compared to tracer bullets lighting up a screen.