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Pauly Denetclaw
Indian Country Today

Arizona, New Mexico and Nebraska are all dealing with wildfires.

The Tunnel Fire near Flagstaff, Arizona, has scorched 21,000 acres of land and is only 15 percent contained as of Monday evening. The fire has burned 30 homes in the Flagstaff area.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those folks that went through this traumatic incident,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

Nez said the Navajo Department of Emergency Management was still working on the final number of Navajo families who were impacted by the fire. Currently, Nez could confirm that one Navajo family has lost their home. The nation is concerned that the fire may reach the Navajo Nation borders in the Cameron and Leupp areas, north and northeast of Flagstaff.

“We are concerned, but we're monitoring it,” Nez said. “We're confident that the type one firefighting team there will stop it before it gets to the Navajo Nation border.”

Weather conditions on Monday were higher temperatures that could result in dryer conditions but the wind was light. High temperatures, gusty winds and low humidity have contributed to the spread of the wildfire.

Navajo researcher, Lani Tsinnijinnie, was concerned about how climate change in the arid climate of Arizona and New Mexico could increase the risk of wildfires. The extreme drought, that has gripped the area since the 90s, has prolonged the dry season and leaves the land vulnerable to devastating wildfires.

The tribal nation has boots on the ground, even working with community health representatives and public safety personnel to check on elders who live closest to the fire and might be dealing with heavy smoke. Should the situation change and the fires reach those areas, residents will receive phone calls telling them to evacuate.

On Saturday, the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President along with several other nonprofits organizations, county, state and Navajo departments worked together to offer emergency food, pet, livestock and hygiene supplies to those who were affected by the evacuation. The supplies went to both Navajo and non-Navajo families.

“When we were going through the height of the pandemic, a lot of people in the Flagstaff area came and reached out and helped out,” Nez said. “This is just one way of giving back.”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey declared the fire a state of emergency Thursday for Coconino County to free up recovery aid to affected communities.

The Crooks wildfire near Prescott began last Monday and has burned around 3,900 acres and is 22 percent contained as of this evening. Helicopters and air tankers dropped water and retardant to slow the fire's growth.

The cause of the wildfires in New Mexico and Arizona remain under investigation.

In New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed emergency declarations as 20 wildfires continued to burn Sunday in nearly half of the state's drought-stricken 33 counties. One wildfire in northern New Mexico, home to many Pueblo communities, started April 6 and merged with a newer fire Saturday to form the largest blaze in the state, leading to widespread evacuations in Mora and San Miguel counties.

That fire burned 56,478 acres and was 12 percent contained as of Monday. Dozens of evacuation orders remained in place. More than 200 structures have been charred by the wildfires thus far and an additional 900 remain threatened, Lujan Grisham said.

A little further south, the McBride Fire began on April 12, burning 6,159 acres – taking two lives and over 200 homes. The fire was close to the homelands of the Mescalero Apache Tribe near Ruidoso, New Mexico. The same day the fire started the tribe issued class III fire restrictions, and a couple days later, closed the Mescalero Parks and Recreation indefinitely. That fire is 95 percent contained as of Monday.

"We need more federal bodies for firefighting, fire mitigation, public safety support on the ground in New Mexico," Lujan-Grisham said. "It's going to be a tough summer. So that's why we are banning fires. And that is why on Monday I will be asking every local government to be thinking about ways to ban the sales of fireworks."

In Nebraska, authorities said wind-driven wildfires sweeping through parts of the state killed a retired Cambridge fire chief and injured at least 11 firefighters. The Road 702 Fire has burned 41,155 acres and has yet to be contained.

On Saturday, a brush fire started south of Macy, Nebraska, causing the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska to issue an evacuation order. The fire was fully contained later that evening and residents were allowed to return to their homes.

“Residents south of Macy be mindful there are a few small hotspots and fire crews are still working to get them out,” the tribe wrote on their Facebook page. “We are grateful for all those who came to help in some way, especially the neighboring fire crews and law enforcement agencies. Stay safe everyone.”

It seems the idea of a wildfire season, which was previously four months during the summer, is in the past. Fires in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Tennessee and New Jersey burned well outside of this designated period, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The forest service is now making the move to think of wildfires as a year-round occurrence.

“For years, agencies relied on seasonal firefighters for summer months, but now that wildfires are burning into the winter, they need to reevaluate their hiring plans,” Deb Schweizer, who worked for the USDA Forest Service, Fire Aviation and Management, wrote in 2019. “Wildland firefighting agencies also need to evaluate the way they conduct training for year-round fire, as well as how to handle the inevitable workforce fatigue.”

Some 87 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Learn more about how to prevent wildfires here.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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