ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Residents of two Native American communities near the New Mexico-Arizona border were forced to leave their homes Monday as strong winds fanned the flames of a wildfire burning in the Chuska Mountains.
The blaze ballooned to more than 17 square miles, forcing Navajo Nation police to issue an evacuation order for parts of Naschitti and nearby Sheep Springs. About 400 people live in the area, and fire managers said those who have yet to leave have been put on notice that more evacuations could be possible.
The Assayii Lake Fire was burning unchecked across dry pinon, juniper and brush. Gusts grounded all air support and hampered other efforts to directly attack the fast-moving flames.
"We just can't afford to put anybody in front of this thing," said fire spokeswoman Arlene Perea. "That's the main thing: protecting life."
Authorities did sweeps of sheep herding camps in the hills Sunday and early Monday and evacuated some people. The fire has since burned through those areas, Perea said.
As tribal police worked to notify residents whose homes are scattered among the hills, radio stations aired alerts and Naschitti chapter employees and others spread word of the approaching fire through social media. The chapter house and the community's schools were evacuated Monday afternoon.
Carol Edison, who was manning the phones at the chapter house, said the wind was howling and the plume of smoke was overhead.
The fire also forced the closure of two roads in the area, and the smoke drifted as far as southern Colorado. Northwestern New Mexico's San Juan County also issued an air quality advisory, noting that smoke and ash had permeated the Four Corners region.
Authorities were also warning ranchers and others to stay out of the Naschitti and Sheep Springs areas because the fire's behavior was so erratic. They said tree tops were torching and spots were burning ahead of the blaze.
More than 250 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to the fire.
Due to the unfavorable weather, crews were scouting the area for locations where they could clear fire lines without being in the direct path of the flames.
National Weather Service forecasters warned of critical fire weather through Wednesday. They said more strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity levels could be expected.
The Assayii Lake Fire was believed to be human-caused, and authorities said the investigation was ongoing.
State and federal land managers have been warning people to be careful because of the dry conditions that have enveloped the state over the past four years. Moderate to severe drought conditions cover more than 95 percent of the state, including portions of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico.