The Las Conchas Fire of 2011 was the largest in New Mexico history. It eventually burned 150,000 acres and threatened Los Alamos, home of the Los Alamos National Lab. We in the West have become accustomed, almost inured to hearing about forest fires like this. Every year, their ranges, frequencies and intensities seem to grow, a possible consequence of global warming.
Little did we know that the Las Conchas Fire caused the closure until a few days ago of Bandelier National Monument, where we were headed. The fire began in June and burned much of the monument as well as acreage around it, though the ancient ruins and visitors center were thankfully spared. Heroic effort was expended by park staff and the Los Alamos fire department to save artifacts and protect the ruins and the park offices. Fortunately, the fire was contained and did no further damage. Most of the watersheds had been destroyed. One of the rangers told us that a recent storm caused a 15-foot wall of water to roar down the canyon, leaving mud and debris in its wake.
As we approached Bandelier, there were signs along the road that no vehicles would be allowed entry in the park. Only shuttles from White Rock would take visitors back and forth. We parked our car in town and took the free transportation. Along the way, we got to view the spectacular Frijoles Canyon. On arrival at the visitors center, we were surprised to learn that the park had only been open for three days. We considered ourselves lucky that we hadn’t come all this way, only to be turned back.
Much of the park is still closed (and will remain so indefinitely until vegetation grows back), but the main loop through the ancient ruins had been re-opened. The large-scale, traditionally circular ruins of Tyuonyi are impressive enough, but the network of altered caves (cavates), carved into the soft volcanic tuff cliffs that tower over the canyon, is unique among ancient Puebloan dwellings. The natural gas pockets left behind when the tuff rained down and hardened were enlarged by ancient humans, many of them interconnected by passageways, and possibly used for habitation or storage. They reminded me of the underground network of rooms, also carved out of tuff (tufa), in Orvieto, Italy. Ladders are provided for park visitors to climb into a few of them, some of which were tall enough for the ancient Puebloans to stand up in. Hiking paths beyond the main loop were closed because of the fire.
Our next stop was Los Alamos.