Monument rising from ashes of largest NM fire

July 29, 2011 - 2:59 AM
Saving Bandelier

This July 18, 2011 image shows damage from the Las Conchas fire on a hillside in the Jemez Mountains west of Bandelier National Monument, N.M. Monument officials said it could be three years before the visitor's center and the rest of Frijoles Canyon will be safe from flooding in the wake of the fire. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

THE BOTTOM OF FRIJOLES CANYON, N.M. (AP) — Tourist season is peaking in northern New Mexico but there are no visitors at the heart of much-loved Bandelier National Monument, tucked into the ancient canyons northwest of Santa Fe.

No one is climbing the wooden ladders that reach up to the centuries-old dwellings that were carved into the canyon walls by ancestors of the Native American pueblos that surround the area. No one is picnicking along Frijoles Creek as it bubbles by.

There's just the silence of a devastated landscape and it could remain that way for years.

Nearly two-thirds of the monument was scorched during the last month by the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. The flames of the Las Conchas fire burned across mesa tops and down canyons dotted with hundreds of archaeological sites.

The fire stopped a mile from the monument's largest concentration of prehistoric cultural sites. Also spared were a collection of historic buildings constructed by workers during the New Deal and a newly renovated $3.2 million visitor's center — all at the bottom of Frijoles Canyon.

The fire is all but out, after destroying more than five dozen homes in the surrounding mountains and threatening the nation's premier nuclear weapons laboratory to the north. The threat now is that summer rains will pound down on the massive burn scar and send a wall of ash, sediment and charred debris into the heart of the monument.

"Generally, they've been saying about three years after a big fire like this you can have flash floods," said Rod Torrez, the monument's chief of interpretation.

"None of us really want to be the one to say, 'Oh, we're not going to be able to open the visitor's center for three years,'" he said. "It could be that the floods that come are not catastrophic and we could start eventually doing tours down to Frijoles Canyon when we know it's safe."

Employees were left scrambling on the afternoon of June 26 to save pieces of prehistoric pottery, rare artifacts and the irreplaceable artwork of more modern day Native Americans.

Just last summer they took weeks to painstakingly place the pottery and artwork in display cases before unveiling the new visitor's center.

This time, the minutes were ticking and there were no white gloves.

Instead, they used blankets and old uniforms to wrap the pieces to be transported out of the canyon to safety. Even the monument's American flag was put to work protecting one large pot.

"We worked until we were ordered out of the canyon," Torrez said. "We had to do kind of this triage. It was sad, you know, not knowing whether the fire was going to reach the visitor's center or not. You had to decide, 'Which Maria (Martinez) pots do I save, which Pablita Velarde paintings do I take?' That was something else."

The 244-square-mile blaze reduced entire mountainsides and canyons to nothing but ash and blackened tree trunks. Thousands of fallen trees were vaporized.

All but 1,000 acres of the 12,000-acre upper Frijoles watershed burned and officials said most of that was severe, leaving no vegetation behind.

"All of us were kind of transfixed by it because on the one hand it was just heart wrenching. But on the other hand, just the magnificence of this humungous event was beyond anything any of us had ever seen. It was huge," Torrez said. "You could see 30-acre pieces of land light up at once. It was basically an acre a second for the first 14 hours of the fire.

Torrez described the fire as a horizontal rolling vortex.

"It's rare and it takes a lot of fuel and obviously there was plenty of it here," Torrez said. "It has the force of several nuclear weapons so that's what really happened that first night."

Monument officials had expected all of Bandelier to go up in flames that night. A shift in the wind and quick work by firefighters saved the rest of the park.

By 3 a.m., Torrez had to stop at an employee's home in nearby Los Alamos to hand off the paintings so they could be taken to Santa Fe for temporary storage.

Once the fire shifted direction and it was safe to return to the canyon bottom after a few days, employees were able to gather the rest of the items from the visitor's center.

Now, Bandelier's pots, paintings and historic furniture are among the rows and rows of National Park items at a massive agency warehouse in Arizona. Torrez said it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

How long the items will be there is anyone's guess.

The largest wildfire in the state's recorded history came during the driest year on record. So far, summer rains have been spotty, and Frijoles Creek — while dark with ash — had only risen by about 18 inches earlier this week.

With the threat of rain, monument staff and a team with the federal government's Burned Area Emergency Response program spent about three days preparing for the worst in Frijoles Canyon.

A row of concrete barriers was placed along the creek and bolstered with sandbags. Another row was placed closer to the visitor's center.

The visitor's center itself has been buttoned up tight. Sandbags — several rows high and a few deep — surround the building and walls of plastic-wrapped plywood have been installed at the entrances as a last resort. If the water gets that far, at least the wood will help keep sediment and debris out of the building, officials said.

Even the manholes in the parking lot have been lined with sandbags and the foot and automobile bridges crossing the creek have been removed to preventing damming of any floodwaters.

"It's not a matter of if we'll have a flash flood, it's just a matter of when," said Rick Mossman, incident commander for the Intermountain All Risk Management Team. "Based on all the experts, the flooding we'll get will be as much or greater than the flood after the La Mesa Fire in 1978, which was the biggest flood since 1866."

Frijoles Creek flowed at 3,000 cubic feet per second after the La Mesa fire and the visitor's center was flooded. This time, officials are bracing for flows up to 15,000 cfs because of the severity of the Las Conchas fire.

Bandelier will continue to be at the mercy of Mother Nature for the next few years, and everyone from monument staff to locals acknowledge that the backcountry will never look the same in their lifetimes.

"You have to get used to the new landscape," Torrez said.

But there are other areas of the monument with little evidence of fire, and officials have reopened some of those places, including Bandelier's campground and amphitheater.

The weekend after the monument reopened the Burnt Mesa trail, the parking lot was full.

"That's a good thing," Torrez said. "People were really itching to come back to the park, and we really want to see people out here."

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Susan Montoya Bryan can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM