LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Summer rain helped firefighters battling a huge forest fire near Los Alamos this weekend, giving authorities enough confidence to allow about 12,000 people to return home for the first time in nearly a week.
Although the threat to Los Alamos and the nation’s premier nuclear research lab had passed, the mammoth wildfire raging in northern New Mexico was still threatening sacred sites of American Indian tribes.
Residents returned to Los Alamos yesterday morning, honking their horns and waving to firefighters as the word got out that the roadblocks were lifted and the narrow two-lane highway cut into the side of a mesa leading to Los Alamos was open. They had fled en masse Monday as the fast-moving fire approached the city and its nuclear laboratory.
“It’s scary, but all of the resources here this time, they were ready. They did a magnificent job,’’ said Michael Shields, as he returned home to his apartment in the heart of town.
The town was last evacuated because of the Cerro Grande fire in 2000. That time, residents returned to a town that had lost 200 homes, several businesses and had to cope with damaged utilities and other county enterprises. This time around, residents were returning to a town that is completely intact, although the fire destroyed 63 homes west of town.
Hundreds of firefighters were working Sunday to contain the 189-square-mile fire as it burned through a canyon on the Santa Clara Pueblo reservation and threatened other pueblos on the Pajarito Plateau.
The area, a stretch of mesas that run more than 15 miles west of Santa Fe, includes Los Alamos and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Authorities said the fire, burning for eight days yesterday, has been fueled by an exceptionally dry season in the Southwest and erratic winds. Crews were helped by rain Saturday afternoon that slowed the fire.
The blaze, the largest ever in New Mexico, reached the Santa Clara Pueblo’s watershed in the Los Alamos Canyon this week, damaging the area that the tribe considers its birthplace and scorching 20 square miles of tribal forest. Fire operations chief Jerome Macdonald said it was within miles of the centuries-old Puye Cliff Dwellings.