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Fire spreads on Navajo Nation

An American flag is whipped by the wind in the town of Naschitti as the Assayii Lake Fire burns unchecked in the distance. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
An American flag is whipped by the wind in the town of Naschitti as the Assayii Lake Fire burns unchecked in the distance. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
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Latest information about the Assayii Lake Fire

TOHATCHI – Joseph Tsosie Jr. decided to leave Naschitti with his wife and daughter after smoke from a 12,000-acre wildfire began aggravating his asthma, forcing the family to take shelter in the Tohatchi High School gymnasium.

“We already miss home,” Tsosie, 48, said Tuesday as he and family members sat on cots in the gym. “We just want to go back home and sleep in our own beds.”

The Tsosies were among about a dozen Naschitti residents who spent the night here as wind-whipped flames sent dense clouds of smoke northeast over their Navajo Nation town.

Dry, windy weather with gusts up to 45 mph on Tuesday continued to frustrate efforts by some 500 firefighters to battle a fire that has charred vegetation on an estimated 12,100 acres in the Navajo Nation’s Chuska Mountains north of Gallup.

Family members Joseph Tsosie Jr., left, Jodie Tsosie and Harriet Captain of Naschitti left their smoky town for shelter in the Tohatchi High School gym.  (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Family members Joseph Tsosie Jr., left, Jodie Tsosie and Harriet Captain of Naschitti left their smoky town for shelter in the Tohatchi High School gym. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Officials ordered the evacuation of Naschitti late Monday as the Assayii Lake Fire moved into the low-lying grass and shrub country east of the mountains, said Charlie Armiger, a spokesman for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 3. No deaths or injuries were reported.

Gusty winds grounded the team’s six helicopters by 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and hampered the ability of firefighters to build fire lines in the rugged mountains, where the fire continued to move north, Armiger said. Firefighters are attempting to set up fire lines on the northern and southern flanks of the fire, which is moving primarily to the northeast, he said.

The fire, named for a lake northwest of Gallup, was zero percent contained late Tuesday.

In Naschitti, a dense layer of brown smoke and dust blanketed the town, at times obscuring the mountains to the west. No flames were visible from the town.

John Brooks, a teacher at Tohatchi High School, said up to 40 people had arrived at the school on Tuesday in addition to the 11 who slept in the gym overnight. The school is serving meals in the cafeteria for anyone who asks, he said.

“We’ve had people come throughout the day to get out of the smoke,” Brooks said. The Red Cross provided cots and equipment and local residents and churches have donated food, he said. “The whole local area has been helpful providing assistance.”

Tsosie said he had heard of the destruction of livestock from family members who live in the Chuska Mountains, and Navajo Nation police have reported that some mountain residents are eager to return home to check on the welfare of their livestock, said John Helmich, a spokesman for the incident management team. Police have closed two roads and are blocking entry into fire-stricken areas, he said.

Officials designated the Shiprock Chapter House as well as the Tohatchi gym as shelters. Armiger said he didn’t know if anyone had sought shelter in Shiprock.


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