NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Just over 10 years ago, a massive wildfire ripped through the Jemez Mountains. Sparked by a downed powerline, the Las Conchas fire eventually burned through the landscape at a rate of about an acre per second.
After scorching a national monument, homes, and over 150,000 acres, the fire was eventually contained by fire crews. But for one community reliant on the landscape, the nightmare was far from over.
Soon after the fire, monsoon rains brought flooding. Santa Clara Pueblo, on the eastern side of the Jemez Mountains, was particularly hard hit. Flooding devastated their ancestral homeland, cut off their access to nature and recreation sites, and killed an entire generation’s ability to connect with the land.
Even now, a decade later, they’re still trying to clean up the debris and rebuild. And the pueblo’s experience offers a dire warning for other communities facing the increased threat of wildfire.
Cleaning a massive burn scar
“The first thing I remember thinking to myself is: ‘How are we gonna clean this up? How are we gonna fix it?'” Daniel Denipah, the director of forestry for the Santa Clara Pueblo, told KRQE News 13. “And in my mind, it was almost like it was impossible.”
After the Las Conchas fire burned through the Jemez, Denipah was part of the first crews on the ground working to clear debris. Although the fire burned thousands of acres, Denipah’s team was focused on clearing one particular area: the Santa Clara Canyon.
The canyon stretches over 10 miles long and traditionally holds both modern campsites and traditional sacred sites for the local Tewa speaking people. Tribal Governor J. Michael Chavarria calls the land the “outdoor cathedral” and a “spiritual sanctuary.” It’s where the Tewa speaking people traditionally collected plants, hunted, fished, and held dances.
But it was decimated by the Las Conchas fire, the last of a series of fires that torched the area between 1998 and 2011. Denipah and Chavarria still recall how jarring the scene was after the fire.
“When the fire happened, it turned the landscape back to [like] the moon,” Chavarria says. “Hydrophobic soil set in, because the fire was so severe and burned so hot that it just toasted the landscape. When the rains came, it was basically like a concrete-lined ditch.”
The canyon, unable to absorb much water, turned into a flood-funnel, directing any rain into a massive torrent at the bottom of the canyon. Denipah says he remembers seeing full-sized trees being carried along in the floods while remaining completely upright. As soon as floods receded, Denipah and others went to work on cleanup.
“The road was washed out. There was a lot of barriers, big logs, big rocks, everything that was just washed-in the area,” Denipah says. “We knew it wasn’t going to be just something simple.”
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Years after the worst flooding, large portions of the canyon are still prone to collapse and debris flows. Photo by Curtis Segarra for KRQE News 13.
Even with help from the federal government, non-governmental organizations, and local community members, cleanup was a monumental task. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared a disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to help build flood-control structures, other Native American tribes stepped in with funding and equipment donations.
Together they’ve installed flood-mitigation ponds, giant debris-capturing fences, and a total of more than 1,000 flood control structures throughout the valley. But Denipah says the work is far from done.
A never-ending restoration process and a new generational gap
“I don’t think it’s ever gonna end,” Denipah says. “It’s probably gonna keep going long after I’m gone.”
It’s been more than a decade since the Las Conchas fire, and the community still doesn’t have full access to the sacred lands. Just recently, some of the canyon has been opened up to community members. But much of the lush valley remains inaccessible and dangerous.
The result has been an entire generation of young community members who haven’t had much access to the land. Chavarria says that hurting the entire Tribal community.
“So for 10 years — since 2011 to just last year, 2021 — the entire canyon was closed to our entire community,” Chavarria says. “So from that 10 years of the canyon being closed, we lost that cultural connection to our younger generation, the future of tomorrow.”
“They need to understand where they come from. They need to understand how they survive off the land,” he says. “They need to understand how our Tewa language — through our songs, our dances — have that connection to the natural materials, resources, and the landscape.”
Denipah says that a large part of the restoration work he’s been doing over the last decade is to help young community members regain access to the land. He’s also hoping that by teaching younger people about the restoration process, they’ll become more engaged.
“It was important for us to try to get them back up here and not not lose them to a computer age,” Denipah says. “It was important for the tribe to ensure that the younger generation had a close tie with everything that we did here because they lost that.”
Moving forward, lessons learned
As Santa Clara continues cleanup work, and community members can start reconnecting with the land, Chavarria has words of advice for communities across New Mexico. In fact, his advice applies to communities across the Southwest who are facing increased threats from wildfires.
That advice: “Making sure you have internal capacities and capabilities” to fight fires and to start restoration. Yes, it takes cooperation across government agencies and across communities to restore a landscape. But, Chavarria says that, especially for tribal areas, you can’t just depend on outside help.
In 2011, the Las Conchas fire was the biggest New Mexico had seen. Now, that memory has been dwarfed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire.
The blaze sparked after a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn got out of control. As a result, the blame for over 300,000 acres burned in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire has fallen on the federal government. Since then, President Biden has said that the government would cover the costs of the wildfire.
But as Santa Clara learned from the Las Conchas fire, not all the damage for large fires can be counted in terms of dollars. That’s where Chavarria’s second piece of advice comes in.
Standing in front of the Puye dwellings, the still-standing homes of the ancestors of the Tewa speaking people at the mouth of the Santa Clara Valley, Chavarria takes his lessons from their history. “They never gave up,” he says, gesturing to the ancestral homes behind him.
“We go back to our people here at Puye because they faced these many challenges before us,” he says. “And their way was through the power of prayer.”
It’s that faith that helped them maintain resiliency through ecological challenges, Chavarria says. And it’s that same faith that keeps communities strong today, he adds.
Like so many people across the U.S., many of the Santa Clara tribal members cannot just pickup and leave when disaster strikes. And like many others who have made their landscape an integral part of their identity, many members don’t want to leave. So then, it’s up to the community to retain resiliency in the face of climate change, Chavarria says.
“We have nowhere else to go,” Chavarria says. “The power of prayer is going to help us maintain that strength, harmony, and that resilience for the future.”
And as for the forest, Denipah says that his restoration work is far from over. And it’s entirely possible that another fire will spark before it’s ever done.
“With so much stuff as far as climate change, the weather impacts, the possibility of another fire, all that comes into play,” Denipah says. “I couldn’t tell you what the future holds, other than we’re just trying to prepare for it.”