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Reporter’s Notebook: Smelling and seeing the blaze, hit home


Alastair Bitsoi

Alastair Bitsoi

Waking up the morning of Father’s Day, I remember seeing a haze of smoke rising behind the eastern face of the Chooshgai Mountains.

I was aware of the fire — eventually dubbed the Assayii Lake Fire from federal and tribal fire officials — from our photographer, who alerted two of the summer interns about the fire that he heard on his scanner June 13.

The interns, who saw Navajo Parks and Recreation staff leaving the scene in the Bowl Canyon Recreation Area, the birth of the fire – were the first members of our publication to be on scene.

Strong winds, combined with the lack of the typical monsoon showers in June, helped the inferno grow into a 14,712-acre wild fire, the largest in the tribe’s modern history.

According to the Burned Area Emergency Response Plan, a joint report issued by the BIA and Navajo Nation, the damage of the fire cost in excess of $8 million.

The BAER Plan report also recommended livestock be remove from the forest for five years so regrowth could occur, which will impact locals from the Naschitti, N.M. area that rely on the mountains for grazing, cultural resources and summer living.

From reporting on this fire, I seen how such a disaster — in part driven by the elements of nature and caused by human carelessness of the environment — unified the impacted communities in and around the Choosghai Mountains.

It was emotional, for sure, documenting the plight of the stressed people and animals that were ordered to evacuate as the orange flames crossed over to the eastern rim of the Chooshgais from Asaayi Lake in Crystal, N.M.

By now, I thought that this fire, which had been reported contained that Father’s Day weekend, wasn’t even close to being burnt out by firefighters. Add the reality of people driving down from the mountain toward the community of Naschitti and an emergency shelter being ordered at the chapter house revealed how this fire was nothing short of being a seasonal prescribed burn.

Experiencing these events, I sprinted from my parents’ house in the NHA subdivision to the bus route to get a better idea of what was happening to these evacuees. A slew of headlights climbing down the mountain are what I also remember.

At the road, I was able to stop the second vehicle, a truck with a couple that lived near Green Meadows, known by locals as Biitá’dah with its canopy of pi–on and juniper. Navajo Nation police told them to evacuate the mountain and locate to the chapter or take refuge with relatives in Naschitti, the Halgai zone, or white flats.

The chapter and senior center, filled with emotional volunteers, would be home for evacuees for the next three weeks. Here, and in the communities of Crystal, Sheep Springs, Newcomb and Tohatchi, N.M. These locations would also become the feeding grounds and camps of the various firefighting teams. The fire, which was contained by July 3, demanded the expertise of the Southwest Incident Management Team 3.

At its peak, the Assayii Lake Fire had about 700 personnel battling the blaze from across the U.S., with the Southwest Incident Management Team 3 commanding it.

The blaze, based on my reporting, burnt several structures, including cabins, sheep camps, outhouses, ceremonial grounds and other structures found in a typical Navajo homestead. Some livestock reportedly had their hooves burnt, but for the most part animal instincts kept them safe, including the wildlife.

According to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, they saw worse fires. This was the analysis they formulated from an aerial flyover they took June 18.
In Shelly’s case, when the fire was growing over 12,000-acres, “It’s not destroying everything. There’s a lot of stuff that is not touched.”

For Martinez, she stated, “I’ve seen worse, much worse.”

Their thoughts about the fire, along with growing frustration with the Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management’s red tape of allocating donations to those in need, angered many Navajo people, especially those directly impacted by the fire.

The fire’s impact on the forest and the way in which donations were handled highlighted the inefficiencies of the Navajo Nation Department of Emergency Management’s emergency response.

At one meeting with the community, many in attendance expressed their thoughts to a Shelly staff assistant of being frustrated by the red tape that Rose Whitehair, executive director for NNDEM, implemented.

“Our president is a heartless, gutless man,” stated an emotional Utahna Denetclaw, who was forced to evacuate the foothills of the Chooshgais.

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

Some would also claim that Shelly’s statements, along with various other remarks and behavior he exhibited during heated controversies, cost him his election. At least that’s what I hear in the field on my reporting beat.

Nearly three years ago, I had my first experience of reporting on forest fires, the Wallow Fire in the White Mountains in Arizona. There, I wrote a cultural piece of how the human-caused wildfire was also a reminder of mankind being neglectful of being stewards of the land. And from that taste of writing about one of the largest fires in Arizona, I yearned for a fire to report on.

Coincidentally, and little did I know that such wishful thinking would develop in my backyard (I guess it’s true to watch what comes out from one’s mouth?). Still, and in spite of my theory of whether my wishful thinking in part contributed to the blaze being a reality near home, the fact of the matter was that this human-caused fire was happening right above us at approximately 9,000 feet.

Smelling and seeing the blaze, which most people thought would happen other places but here, hit home. I found myself in tears various times, especially after interviewing an emotional community member, telling me what material items, structures, and memories they lost.

I’ll be honest that probably on two different occasions I did dream of the Chooshgais being on fire prior to it burning this past summer. I occasionally find myself thinking of those dreams and why I even dreamt them. Maybe it was because I saw how precious and beautiful it had been from herding sheep at my nali’s sheep camp in Antelope Springs, hauling wood, or cutting timber to build the family Hogan that a massive fire could eventually destroy it and these memories.

After all, many people from Naschitti, Tohatchi and Sheepsprings relied on the mountains for their livelihood.
I thought that maybe I should have had a ceremonial prayer, but may be it was also a warning as well. Or that its just part of nature’s process of cleansing itself.

But, what helped me resolve this thinking, were when medicine healers like Gladys Plummer turned to prayer, singing and chanting — knowledge system of the natural world — in an effort to help firefighters control the blaze.

The hand trembler, whose hands were shaking while conducting her rituals, offered a Fire Protection Way song and prayer for the impacted communities, forest life and wildlife.

After conducting her ritual, the medicine woman offered these words to community members: “Just love one another.”

Her healing ultimately comforted me and everyone else. Coincidently, this is when I would claim that the high-velocity winds began to slow down, which allowed the firefighters to wrest control of the Assayii Lake Fire on June 19.

Since the fire’s demise, most of the community still remains close knit and continues to heal. During the annual tribal fairs, floats by the community were created thanking the various communities and companies for their donations.

What’s more, I’m especially proud how community dinners were hosted in honor of the hundreds of firefighters that contained the blaze.

In a June 26 story, firefighter Drew Henry told the Times how he would always remember how locals impacted by the fire treated him with respect.

“I’ve been fighting fires for 12 years and it’s really cool to help out and be part of it,” Henry said about the largest wildfire in Navajo history.

“I think the Navajo people are extremely courteous and friendly to us,” said Dewey Rebbe, superintendent for the Gila Hotshots. “It was very interesting learning about the Navajo culture. They were just wonderful.”

According to Peter D’Aquanni, fire information officer for the Southwest Incident Management Team 3, “A lot of the fire fighters were in tears” at a community dinner held for the East Pike Crew in Newcomb, N.M.

Even as I write this column, it’s still emotional. All I know though is that healing takes time. Or as Plummer put it, “Just love one another.”

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