Wildfire rages over sacred Navajo land

Hundreds battle nation's top priority blaze
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NAVAJO MOUNTAIN - Winds that didn't materialize helped firefighters Thursday in their efforts to contain a fire burning on one of the Navajo Nation's most sacred landmarks.

The fire in southeastern Utah just north of the Arizona border is raging on the east side of 10,500-foot Navajo Mountain, 2 to 3 miles from this community. It is the No. 1 priority fire in the country, with helicopters flying firefighting crews to the rugged area. About 600 people are in danger from the fire and water shortage, said Leo Manheimer, the Navajo Mountain chapter president.

But there have been no evacuations and none are imminent, said Jim Whittington, public information officer for the Southwest Incident Management Team.

The fire was sparked by lightning on Saturday, and by Thursday night it had burned 3,000 acres. Whittington said it is 5 percent contained.

Crews were expecting wind gusts on Thursday up to 30 mph, but the wind never materialized, Whittington said.

"It was a pretty good day. Early morning cloud cover and a trace of snow on top of the mountain" helped fire crews, Whittington said. "We were able to build some good [fire] lines."

Crews have flanked the fire with fire lines scraped into the ground about 3 to 4 miles from most structures. They are waiting for the right wind conditions over the next few days to burn out fuel between the fire lines and the main fire, Whittington said.

Four hundred forty-five people were fighting the fire with help of two Sky Crane helicopters carrying water from Lake Powell, about 10 miles to the west from the mountain, to drop on the flames.

The Navajo Nation and San Juan County have declared states of emergency.

Meanwhile, the fire has burned the runoff path from which most of the community receives its water, Manheimer said. There is concern fire retardant will contaminate the water running down the north side of the mountain. Water is being hauled to the plant that would normally accept the mountain runoff.

"Because the mountain is a special place, [Navajo] elders are concerned that special plants and herbs on the mountain are being burned," said Jesie Neztsosie, office assistant of the Navajo Mountain Chapter House. The plants are used for medicinal purposes, she said.

Navajo Mountain Chapter House is asking for donations of food and water. Anyone wishing to donate can call the Navajo Mountain Chapter House at 928-672-2915.

Elsewhere in the Intermountain West officials issued red-flag fire warnings for Colorado on Thursday, while in Arizona a roaring blaze forced the evacuation of about 1,000 homes.


The Associated Press contributed to this story.