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Navajo Nation adapts to fight wildfires during pandemic

With new protocols in place, crews hitting fires hard and keeping them small
An American flag whips in the wind in Naschitti, N.M., during the Assayii Lake Fire in June 2014. Navajo Regional Fire Management has trained 90 firefighters for the season, which is about average, but how teams are organized has shifted because of the coronavirus pandemic.


Despite concerns about the coronavirus, Navajo Regional Fire Management said it is prepared to handle what’s expected to be an above-average fire season.

The northern portion of the Navajo Nation remains in severe drought conditions, while the southern portion is in moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“It’s been an above-average fire season on the Nation so far,” said Dale Glenmore, regional fire management officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Region.

To date this season, the agency has responded to 132 fires on the Nation. In an average year, the fire region, managed under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will typically respond to 280 blazes.

The Navajo Nation, which was among the top three coronavirus hot spots in the country about two months ago, has seen progress in reducing the number of cases in recent weeks. Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, in a virtual town hall last week, said the Nation has “been able to flatten our curve.”

Yet, concerns about recent record-breaking spikes in neighboring states, including Arizona and Utah, have increased precautions on the Navajo Nation. After suspending the 57-hour weekend curfews that Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez implemented for eight consecutive weeks, the Navajo government decided to reinstate a curfew last weekend.

Nez asked Navajo citizens to resist traveling across state lines and asked visitors to avoid traveling onto the Navajo Nation.

This concern about stopping the spread of the coronavirus from locations outside the Nation could affect the ability to bring in additional resources during a large wildfire response.

“With the president’s stay-at-home orders, we’d have to collaborate with the tribe and make sure outside resources are allowed in,” Glenmore said.

That’s one reason Navajo Regional Fire has decided to implement a “methodical” approach to responding to wildfires this season, he said. The department is emphasizing the importance of fire suppression.

“We’re hitting them hard and keeping them small,” he said of the fires.

The Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew and Scouts 1 Crew respond to the 2020 Mangum Incident on the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona. The size of fire crews remains the same this year, but groups are not intermingling as much to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus.

On average, the Navajo Nation typically does not see large wildfires common in other areas of the West. The largest fire of the season so far has been the Cameron Fire, which burned 129 acres on the west side of the reservation, along the Little Colorado River corridor.

In contrast, the lightning-caused East Canyon Fire southeast of Mancos burned 2,905 acres this month.

Glenmore said many of the fires on the Nation tend to be low intensity and added, “I just don’t have a feel for why we don’t have larger fires.”

Pandemic means new procedures

Navajo Regional Fire has trained 90 firefighters, which the department said was average. While staffing levels have not changed, how teams are organized has shifted because of the coronavirus.

“They abide by social-distancing practices, we’ve provided masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning products for buildings and vehicles so they can frequently disinfect their areas,” the department said in a news release.

The department has also cut down on how many people ride in a vehicle together. While the size of crews have remained the same, it has decreased the intermingling of different groups of firefighters to cut down on the possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Pine trees burn in the Chuska Mountains in June 2014 during the 14,712-acre Assayii Lake Fire, one of the largest fires on the Navajo Nation. Navajo Regional Fire is emphasizing the importance of fire suppression this year.

Glenmore said initially funding has not been a concern this season. The Navajo Regional Fire Management unit received an additional $90,000 from the BIA to address the coronavirus pandemic, for items such as personal protective equipment, sanitizing wipes and cleaning supplies. He said the funding could also go toward additional housing needs to quarantine and isolate crew members or staff members who test positive for the virus.

Currently, no crew members or administrative staff have tested positive for the virus, Glenmore said.

On Tuesday, the Navajo Department of Health, Navajo Epidemiology Center and Navajo Area Indian Health Services reported 7,088 cases of COVID-19, 3,754 of which have recovered, and 336 deaths related to the virus. The health agencies estimate 50,185 people have been tested.

With the approach of the monsoon season in mid-July, Glenmore said the Navajo Nation fire season will slow down. Depending on the amount of rain received, the fire season could resume in early fall, around the time many health experts are predicting a possible resurgence in coronavirus cases.

“It depends on the weather, but in my experience, there will be a smaller season in August and mid-September,” he said.


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