The Fire Next Time

From the Santa Fe New Mexican

“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.


Las Conchas Fire


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.

Sallie Bingham is a writer, teacher, feminist activist, and philanthropist.

She is best known for her family memoir, Passion and Prejudice published by Knopf in 1989. Her most recent work is titled The Blue Box: Three Lives In Letters, published by Sarabande Books in 2014.

Her forthcoming book, tentatively titled Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, most likely in 2016. More on the book and Doris Duke can be found in Sallie's blog.

Sallie's complete biography is available here.


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