Improving weather conditions Wednesday helped firefighters battle a 13,250-acre wildfire in the Navajo Nation’s Chuska Mountains but law enforcement officers continued to turn away residents eager to rescue livestock from fire-stricken grazing sites, officials said.
Sheep and cattle are culturally important to the Navajo and many ranchers move livestock to high-elevation grazing sites each summer, said Gloria Tom director of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Assayii Lake Fire north of Gallup “has had a great impact on our livestock and our people,” Tom said Wednesday. “People were not prepared for it.”
The damage to livestock, structures and timber in the burned area likely won’t be known until after the fire has been contained, Tom said. No deaths or injuries have been reported.
“Right now we’re receiving requests to assist people in moving or checking on livestock up in the mountains,” Tom said. Some ranchers have moved livestock to permanent residences in lower elevations, she said.
Navajo Nation police and other agencies are enforcing the closure of N.M. 134 and other roads in the Chuska Mountains west of Naschitti, Tom said. Officers have reported turning away some residents, she said.
“The fire is still burning, and we’re very concerned about people trying to get back up there to check on their sheep camps or their homes and livestock,” Tom said.
Winds subsided somewhat on Wednesday, allowing nine helicopters and at least one fixed-wing aircraft to drop water and slurry on the fire’s southern flank, said Charlie Armiger, a spokesman for Southwest Area Incident Management Team 3.
Wind speeds were estimated at 19 to 22 mph with gusts up to 32 mph. About 600 firefighters worked on fire lines Wednesday with the help of bulldozers, he said. Armiger had no estimate of containment.
Wind direction continues to work in the favor of firefighters by pushing the fire into lower elevations to the east where fuels are sparse, he said.
The number of people displaced by the fire and heavy smoke is unknown, Tom said. Officials estimated that 11 people were evacuated, but others may have voluntarily sought refuge at shelters or with family members.
The Navajo Nation planned Wednesday night to survey evacuation sites, which include the Tohatchi High School gymnasium and chapter houses in Naschitti, Crystal and Sheep Springs, she said.