On the afternoon of July 4, 2003, I was at The Taos News office finishing up a bit of last minute work before heading home for a family barbecue. One of the other reporters was there, Betsy Phillips. As I stepped outside to go home, I looked up in horror to see a large plume of smoke billowing up from the mountains east of Taos Pueblo.
I raced back inside and told Betsy, who in those days covered such things. She immediately got to work gathering information. I headed home, believing this was being covered, but, as I drove I kept feeling uneasy. I kept thinking about how we’d need photos before officials locked the area down. When I got home, I told my wife, Melody, and some of the folks who had arrived what was happening. I started pacing, concerned about what was going on at the village. Melody told me, “Just go.”
So, I grabbed my camera bag and headed to Taos Pueblo.
I was right, just after I arrived at the village, tribal officials shut down access to anyone except emergency vehicles. What I found was an eerie sight. There were a few tribal members walking around, some standing on top of the ancient houses with binoculars, all worriedly staring at the fire. They had good reason. By then, the huge black plume of smoke had grown into a massive presence in the eastern sky.
The smoke rose up and flowed west over the village, blocking out most of the sun’s rays, bathing the adobe village which has stood for nearly a thousand years in a strange and ominous amber light. There was also the palpable anxiety, a fear that the fire might spread to the village less than a mile from the flames.
Sparked by a dry lightning strike, witnessed by numerous people attending a Fourth of July event at KTAOS up near the old blinking light north of El Prado, the incident would become known as the Encebado Fire.
Ultimately, it would consume 5,400 acres over the following 11 days or so. Hundreds of firefighters and volunteers worked tirelessly to contain the blaze, which some tribal members said threatened some sacred areas. Helicopters unloaded thousands of gallons of water, while large transport planes dropped fire retardant chemicals.
The annual Taos Pueblo Powwow, which normally happens the second weekend in July, was canceled due to the grounds being used as the firefighter’s staging area and because its committee felt it appropriate anyway considering the level of emergency.
I thought about this incident after recently coming across a quote from C.G. Jung regarding an impression he gleaned from Taos Pueblo: “I stood by the river and looked up at the mountains, which rise almost another six thousand feet above the plateau. I was just thinking that this was the roof of the American continent ... Suddenly, a deep voice, vibrant with suppressed emotion, spoke from behind me into my left ear: “Do you not think that all life comes from the mountains?” An elderly Indian had come up to me, inaudible in his moccasins, and had asked me this heaven knows how far-reaching question. A glance at the river pouring down from the mountain showed me the outward image that had engendered this conclusion. Obviously all life came from the mountain, for where there is water, there is life.”
The Encebado Fire was contained. It did not threaten the village. And, months later, a monumental effort was launched to re-seed the burned areas in order to avoid destruction from flooding. Approved was a special seed product which would come to be known as the largest most widespread use of nanotechnology in an organic process.
After the first significant rainstorm, that stuff, mixed with thick ash, flooded over containment ponds and onto tribal lands below. It left a gray gel-like substance you could peel and roll off the ground. Then, the helicopters resumed the re-seeding right afterward.