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Crews Battling Western US Fire Brace for More Wind

June 18, 2014

By Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) - Firefighters are bracing for another day of hot, dry and windy conditions as they battle a fast-moving wildfire that has consumed thousands of acres of forest along with tribal grazing lands that Navajo families depend on to raise sheep and other livestock.

The Assayii Lake Fire blackened more than 19 square miles (50 sq. kilometers) in less than two days while making its way across summer and winter grazing areas in the Chuska Mountains, just east of the Arizona-New Mexico border.

The flames destroyed at least four structures and threatened about 50 homes near the communities of Naschitti and Sheep Springs, fire officials said. Some homes in Naschitti were evacuated, and authorities were urging desperate Navajo families to refrain from heading into the mountains to search for their sheep and other livestock.

That has been a challenge despite all the road closures, said fire spokeswoman Shari Malone.

"They really do value the life of their livestock more than they value their own," she said. "It`s been difficult."

The Navajo Nation`s Department of Agriculture has been busy rounding up trailers to move some of the livestock corralled and brought down from the mountain before the fire made its run Monday. Some Navajo families took to social media to ask for hay and water donations.

Leo Watchman, head of the tribe`s agriculture department, said it was too early to say what might have happened to the sheep and cattle that were on the mountain when the fire broke out. He said ensuring the safety of the community members has been the priority.

Authorities did sweeps of sheep camps in the hills and evacuated some people Sunday and Monday. The fire has since burned through those areas.

Agriculture and livestock, especially sheep, have been key in the evolution of Navajo society and economy. The animals are a staple of Navajo life, their wool is prized for its use in rugs, and mutton is on the menu of restaurants throughout the region.

Tribal members have grazed sheep for centuries, withstanding the federal government`s scorched-earth campaign during the 1860s in which their orchards and herds were destroyed in an effort to force them from their homeland. Decades later, they were forced to recover again after the government downsized their herds.

On Tuesday, close to 600 firefighters and other personnel were assigned to the blaze, along with dozens of engines, helicopters and planes. Crews have been trying to find places along the flanks where they could begin building a fire line. The unfavorable weather has hampered efforts to directly attack the flames.

The Assayii Lake Fire was one of several blazes making problems for western states.

In California, diminishing winds have helped firefighters surround 85 percent of a blaze burning near Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra Nevada. The blaze burned brightly and sent smoke skyward within the fire lines on Tuesday, but did not jump outside of them.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Story Image: This image provided by Inci Web shows a plume of smoke in the Chuska Mountains near Naschitti, N.M. on Sunday (AP Photo/Inciweb)

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