LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – As firefighters held their ground Friday on the flank of a massive wildfire that burned near the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratory, officials at the lab and in the surrounding town began planning for the return of thousands of residents and employees who fled the area earlier this week.
Officials didn't give a timetable for when they would lift the five-day-old evacuation order for the northern New Mexico town of Los Alamos, normally home to 12,000 residents. But some county workers were back Friday to prepare for the eventual rush of utility service calls, as well as possible flooding from surrounding mountainsides denuded by the wildfire.
With the fire burning several miles upslope from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, officials were confident the blaze no longer posed an immediate threat to the lab, where experiments on two supercomputers and studies on extending the life of 1960s-era B61 nuclear bombs have been put on hold.
"I anticipate that we are going to be able to bring the laboratory back up in a way that's smooth and continues to maintain the safety and security that we're responsible for," Lab Director Charles McMillan said.
The challenge Friday was stopping the flames from doing more damage to the lands of Santa Clara Pueblo, about seven miles away. The fire had made a run north toward the reservation earlier this week, hitting the pueblo's watershed and cultural sites.
Pueblo residents have been devastated by the news coming in from the front lines of the firefighting — forest resources lost and plants and animals that the pueblo's 2,800 residents depend on gone, Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno said.
"This is a fire like we've never seen before," he said. "We cried when we saw Mother Nature doing what she was doing to our canyon area. We were helpless."
The fire has blackened more than 162 square miles in the last six days, making it the largest in New Mexico history. Erratic winds and dry fuels helped it surpass the 2003 Dry Lakes fire, which took five months to burn through 94,000 acres in the Gila National Forest.
More than 1,200 firefighters were on the lines Friday trying to slow down the flames as National Guard troops, state police officers and local deputies patrolled neighborhoods and enforced evacuation orders.
Fire operations section chief Jerome Macdonald said parts of the fire in Santa Clara canyon burned hot while other areas saw less damage because of overnight temperatures and lighter winds.
Dasheno said the tribe has discussed the possibility of evacuating if the fire grew closer.
Santa Clara wasn't the only Indian community feeling the effects of the fire. To the south, Cochiti Pueblo was also worried about its watershed.
Also, the Pajarito Plateau — which includes Los Alamos and the nearby pueblos — has hundreds of archaeological sites at Bandelier National Monument that hold great significance to area tribes. About half of the park has burned, Bandelier superintendent Jason Lott said.
"The impact to our pueblos is unprecedented," said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.
In Los Alamos, fire officials said that crews continued to work Friday to keep flames from spreading down a canyon that leads to the lab and the town. Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker said a small fire lit to remove fuels was steadily burning and being monitored by 200 firefighters.
The canyon runs past the old Manhattan Project site in town and a 1940s-era dump site where workers are near the end of a cleanup project of low-level radioactive waste, as well as the site of a nuclear reactor that was demolished in 2003.
Most of the town's displaced residents have been staying with friends or family. The American Red Cross has set up two shelters where 110 people have been staying.
Evacuees at the shelter at the Santa Claran Hotel Casino in Espanola, about 20 miles from Los Alamos, said the first night was the most difficult because of the commotion of people settling in and getting used to sleeping in a room with dozens of strangers.
"Being alone in my apartment, I know what sounds it makes. My refrigerator kicks on, I hear the footsteps in the hallway. I'm used to that," said Michael Calloway, who took shelter at the casino. After two nights, the evacuees said they have a rhythm that for Cynthia Spring includes picking a spot away from a loud snorer.
"I don't know if I snore," said evacuee Scott Jonze, who lives alone in his apartment in Los Alamos. "But my cat can tell you."
Calloway learned that moving a tray filled with cupcakes, candy and other snacks out of reach of the children at the shelter at a certain time in the evening prevents them from getting hyper, allowing them to fall asleep sooner.
"You just go with the flow," Calloway said.
Santa Claran shelter manager Don Hughes said that about 30 people who spent the first night there have found other places to stay.
Bryan reported from Albuquerque.