Semi-trailer fire closes U.S. Highway 491 in Naschitti, evacuation ordered

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

NASCHITTI, N.M., Aug. 7, 2014

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For the second time this summer, Arlene Baloo was asked by Navajo Nation Police Officers to evacuate her home.

She was told by police officers Thursday morning to evacuate her home because, at mile marker 43 on U.S. Highway 491, a tractor trailer hauling toxic material caught fire. The burning trailer emitted huge plumes of dark smoke that could be seen for miles.

The accident forced the shutdown of the major highway, which serves as a corridor to the Four Corners area. As of noon, the road was still closed, according to New Mexico State Transportation officials.  Southbound travelers will be detoured onto Navajo Route 5, north of Newcomb, N.M., then U.S. Highway 371.  There is no alternative route, at this time, for northbound travelers.

“All I heard was a big boom or something this morning when I was in the house,” said Baloo, who lives less than half a mile and in plain view of where the semi-trailer caught fire.

It occurred at about 6:40 a.m. this morning, Baloo said, noting that she saw the driver of the semi detach one of the trailers of the two-trailer diesel truck.

Seeing the fire and then the smoke from outside her house, said she called the local police and fire departments, who were on the scene between 7:30 and 8 a.m.

The evacuation was mandated by the Navajo Nation Emergency Response Team, and applies to residents living within a two-mile radius of the accident.

“That even includes the Naschitti Chapter House,” said Rose Whitehair, director for the Navajo Nation’s Department of Emergency Management, about the evacuation order, which is merely a precautionary measure.

Currently, the hazardous materials waste team from San Juan County is on scene assessing the incident, Whitehair said.

In response to the evacuation, shelters have been set up in Tohatchi and Newcomb chapters. Evacuees who live north of the scene will be sheltered at Newcomb and those south of the scene will seek assistance in Tohatchi, Whitehair said.  

The evacuation order is the second the community of Naschitti has experienced this summer. In June, community members living in the Chooshgai Mountains and in Naschitti were told to evacuate their homes by fire and police officials because of the raging 14,000-acre Assayii Lake Fire that went out of control from strong, gusty winds and blanketed the community with intense smoke.

Whitehair said these emergency situations serve as a reminder for the public to always be prepared for a disaster and have a to-go survival kit readily available.

“For your safety, stay away from the smoke,” Whitehair stated in an Aug. 7 press release. “The more distance between you and the source of the smoke, the better.”

Whitehair also stated that it’s vital for the public to close and lock doors and keep windows of their homes closed. Other reminders include seeking medical attention if individuals have difficulty breathing, irritation of the eyes, skin, throat or respiratory tract, she said, among other health issues.

“The hazardous material team is on site and will make a final determination of the chemicals and how they’re going to handle the scene,” Whitehair added.

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