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Encebado Fire devastating Taos Pueblo lands and livelihoods

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TAOS, N.M. - Nearly 4,000 acres of forest on Taos Pueblo have burned in the sacred Blue Lake Wilderness area. Hundreds of personnel - 27 firefighting crews, 14 helicopters, plus dozens of other pieces of equipment have fought to suppress this fire, dubbed the Encebado Fire, since July 4.

The raging inferno was started by a single lighting strike. Paul Castillo, owner of the La Dona Luz Inn, said he was stopped at a traffic light when he glanced upward and noticed a small cloud floating over Taos Mountain. Without warning, he saw one single shaft of lighting flash from the little cloud deep into trees below.

"One solid bolt - I remember thinking that it could start a fire," said Castillo.

Several other witnesses stated seeing one bolt of lightening. Two hours later, an out-of-control blaze was reported in the same area of the strike.

No structures have been lost presently, and only a small number of people were voluntarily evacuated from Taos Canyon and Taos Pueblo for health reasons due to the large amount of smoke. Officials estimate only five percent of the fire is contained and evacuations may still be necessary.

Erratic winds caused fire crews to retreat to safe areas several times and there are still concerns for residents in the Taos Canyon, according to Mark Lujan, Taos Pueblo Governor Allen Martinez's secretary and acting fire information officer.

The blaze grew on its northern, eastern and southwestern boundaries, according to fire officials with a near doubling in size in just a few days. Presently stretching four miles long and a little over two and one half miles wide, winds are generally pushing it toward the southwest.

Very active on the nights of July 7 and 8, Lujan said flames shot 150 feet into the air as it burned islands of trees and brush inside the fireline firefighters had constructed. Firelines were dug by bulldozers and by hand over the last several days to protect residents of Taos Canyon area, Taos and Taos Pueblo.

"The fire did make a run at the dozer line and there was some slop-over," said Lujan, explaining that the southerly direction of the blaze was toward residential areas.

"Crews were dispatched and there were also additional air resources brought in. They are doing an assessment this morning on that area to see what type of the activity occurred in addition to what we observed. There is a buffer of two to three miles between the active fire and residents. Spot fires are occurring ahead of the main fire, so we're keeping an eye out for the safety of the community," said Lujan.

Spot fires and slop-over loosely describe smaller fires and fires that cross the lines built by firefighters which can be caused by burning embers carried on wind gusts. Drought in the southwest the last few years has dried out much of the forested areas and gives fire materials a higher level of combustion.

Smoke rising from burning areas also creates its own weather conditions. A large column of smoke rising rapidly may cause sharp down drafts and wind shear, quickly pushing fire into unpredictable directions.

Firefighters clear areas around the burning forest to act as a break. Areas may be cleared using controlled fires that burn toward the fire or cutting timber and clearing brush. Teams will start in several different areas, depending on the terrain and work toward building a break completely around a burning area.

The Encebado Fire is in an area of rough, mountainous terrain and at a fairly high altitude that is quite challenging for fire crews.

"Monday night (July 7) it was acting up everywhere because of the winds and the fire misbehaved Tuesday during the day like it should have," concurred Bill Duemling, fire information officer with the New Mexico Interagency Fire Management Team.

"The burn period is usually during the day due to the increase in temperature, the decrease in relative humidity and an increase in the winds. Prevailing winds caused it to flare up along the dozer line," said Duemling.

At press time, there was containment in the southwest area where crews are working hardest to protect residential areas.

Although the fire has not threatened lives or structures at this point, other facets of Pueblo life have been ravaged.

"There is devastation like I've never seen in my lifetime," said Lujan. "There is profound impact to our watershed and our cultural activities. The Rio Pueblo Canyon provides (drinking) water from the sacred Blue Lake and because of the wind and fire activity, there is ash and fire debris getting into the waters," explained Lujan.

Millions of gallons of fire retardant, a substance consisting of fertilizer, adherent and dye, also has been dropped from airplanes throughout the area. Fire retardant will stick to all surfaces and may not degrade for decades. Runoff from future rainfall may carry the substance into the watershed. Tribal officials have requested that only water be used on sacred areas, but that precaution may not prevent contamination of the lake and drinking water.

Potable water has been provided to residents of the pueblo.

"The Taos Pueblo tribal government wanted to provide a safe drinking source for those residents still living traditionally and provided several sources of drinking water," said Lujan.

Approximately 150 people still live a traditional lifestyle, full-time at Taos Pueblo. These residents collect their food, medicine and water from their natural environment, as have previous residents for thousands of years.

Taos Pueblo is closed to tourists and Taos Mountain Casino has been completely shut since the fire started. Tribal officials cannot predict how long these economic resources will remain unavailable.

Taos Pueblo is also a renowned heritage site, hosting visitors from around the world.

"The dollars that come in from tourism support tribal government and also is a source of matching funds for federal grant monies," said Lujan. Federal funds support health, education, cultural activities, public safety and other needs of the Pueblo. Over 1,900 people reside on Taos Pueblo land.

"Roughly 117 employees of the casino are out of a job because the casino is closed," explained Lujan. "That has an impact to the tribe and the surrounding community. If you look at the make up of staff and employees, a higher percentage are non-tribal members. We rely on the labor force within the community."

Neither Lujan nor other fire officials could provide a specific dollar amount of the total fiscal impact the Encebado Fire has had on the Taos Pueblo, or the rest of the Taos community at this time; although an estimated $1.3 million has been spent on fire suppression and support activities at present.