Assayii Lake Fire victims frustrated with red tape

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

NASCHITTI, N.M., June 18, 2014

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While firefighters bring the containment of the largest wildfire in Navajo history – the 13,482-acre Assayii Lake Fire - to 20 percent Friday, locals here say there is too much red tape in the way of getting the assistance they need.

The red tape they speak of comes from Rose Whitehair, director for the Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management.  Whitehair has ordered a pause on donations, noting that all donations being brought to the Navajo Nation are being routed to a temporary warehouse in Fort Defiance.

"Donations must be inventoried, inspected and organized for immediate use or long-term storage," Whitehair said in a June 18 press release from the Incident Command Operations at the Emergency Operating Center in Tse Bonito, N.M.

In the news release, Whitehair also recommended any monetary donations to the Navajo United Way, where 100 percent of donations will be used for fire relief.

 For Naschitti Chapter's Authorized Local Emergency Response Team, they're now forced to justify their claims to get donations from the central command center in Fort Defiance. They're also having donations, such as those from the National Relief Charities, being intercepted, when the direct impact of the fire isn't in Fort Defiance or Window Rock, but in the community itself.

"A lot of people want to donate, but they're saying to send to Fort Defiance," said grazing official Willis Nez.

Arlene Baloo, a member of the Naschitti ALERT team, who is managing donations for the chapter, took to social media – Facebook – on Friday to explain her frustration with what has become a bureaucratic process.

"Our donation from Nat'l Charity Relief was intercepted by Navajo Nation and now semi-trucks are re-routed to Fort Defiance," she posted. "This is crazy!! Our people here in Naschitti Chapter are the main ones affected, this is ground zero here!!!"

Baloo went on to say that the chapter has been a locally governance certified chapter since 2010, and under that designation has the authority to work with businesses and nonprofits like National Relief Charities.

"We are independent!!" she added. "We know our people here and know the hardship they are experience. Our own community helped each other into late Sunday night, evacuating our people and their animals from the mountain (risking their lives into the deep smoke)…where was the Navajo Nation???!!!!!!"

Last evening at a community update meeting, Dan Begay, incident commander for BIA, told community members here that the 13,482-acre fire is under the auspices of the Southwest Incident Management Team 3, and that all orders will come from them or Whitehair.

"This is their fire right now," Begay said about the SWA Incident Management Team 3, which is led by Incident Commander Bea Day.

Begay explained since that is the case, the public needs to go to the command center in Fort Defiance or Window Rock for updates, including the policies governing donations.

Similar to Begay, Dwight Largie, a staff assistant to Vice President Rex Lee Jim, tried assuring the public about the fire being part of nature's cycle to replenish itself.

"We need to ensure we take care of our land," Largie said. "The fire is part of it."

Largie also reminded the public how his office and President Ben Shelly is thankful for the fire not taking any human fatalities.

Largie's response didn't resonate well with community members Utahna Denetclaw and Edison Jones.

Denetclaw, who lives in the foothills of the Chooshgai Mountains and was forced to evacuate it with her family and livestock, didn't appreciate how Shelly wasn't available to see the realities of the victims directly impacted by the fire.

"Our president is a heartless, gutless man," she shouted in an emotional testimony, while referring to how Shelly was quoted in the Navajo Times saying how he thought the fire was "not destroying everything" and how there's "a lot of stuff not touched."

Denetclaw added that the tribal bureaucrats in Window Rock have no idea what the victims of the fire are experiencing.

"That's ridiculous," she added.

Jones questioned why it took Shelly a while to declare an emergency on the Assayii Lake Fire, when it began on June 13 in the Bowl Canyon Recreation Area.

He also asked Largie why there was no representation of the Navajo government, including Shelly, at the impacted chapters during daylight, not in the middle of the night.

Shelly, along with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, visited Naschitti Chapter Tuesday night at approximately 10:30 p.m.

"When you see those wildfires, President Obama isn't there," Largie said to Denetclaw and Jones, before adding that the executive branch was available in the form of public safety and emergency medical staff.

Perry Yellowhair, a paramedic with the Navajo Emergency Medical Services, assured Rudy Johnson of her need to "document" her needs to get medicine for her health ailments, and reimbursement from Whitehair through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"If you don't document, it didn't happen," Yellowhair explained.

According to Chester Carl, a volunteer with the Naschitti ALERT team, about 896 livestock were evacuated from the mountain. There are still approximately 226 still on the mountain, he said.

Carl knows this information from collecting data from livestock owners, which he has on a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet on his computer. He created this extra layer of red tape to justify the chapter's donation needs from the central command center in Fort Defiance, he said.

"We're waiting for approval from emergency management," Carl said about the proposal for donation requests. "We're restricted and have no idea, but we're going with what people are telling us." 

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