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Ballooning Arizona Wildfire Threatens Staples of Navajo Nation

A fast-moving wildfire near the Arizona-New Mexico border grew Tuesday as it approached two communities and threatened traditional grazing lands on the Navajo Nation, where sheep are a staple of life, their wool is prized for its use in rugs, and mutton is on the menu of restaurants throughout the region.

The Assayii Lake Fire ballooned to more than 19 square miles in less than two days while making its way across winter and summer grazing lands in the Chuska Mountains.

The flames destroyed at least four structures and threatened about 50 homes near the rural communities of Naschitti and Sheep Springs, fire officials said.

Some homes in Naschitti were evacuated Monday afternoon, and authorities were urging desperate Navajo families to refrain from going into the mountains to search for their sheep and other livestock because of the fire's erratic behavior.

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"They haven't contained any of it yet, and they're just letting it burn right now because the winds are so high, and that presents a problem," said Leo Watchman, head of the Navajo Nation's Department of Agriculture. "How far out do you evacuate homes and livestock pens? We're not out of the danger yet."

The tribal agency has been busy rounding up trailers to move livestock from the area. But Watchman 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.

Agriculture and livestock have been key in the evolution of Navajo society and economy. Tribal members have grazed sheep in the area for centuries, and livestock ownership is considered a symbol of resourcefulness and prosperity.

Fire managers said Tuesday they've closed roads in the area, but it has still been a challenge keeping people out given the value of livestock to the Navajos.

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

Close to 600 firefighters and other personnel have been assigned to the blaze, along with dozens of engines, helicopters and planes. They braced for gusts of up to 50 mph Tuesday.

Fire officials said the weather has hampered efforts to directly attack the flames. Crews were scouting for places along the western and eastern flanks where they could begin building a fire line.

Navajo President Ben Shelly and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez planned to visit one of the evacuation centers late Tuesday. On Monday, Shelly declared an emergency because of the blaze.

- Associated Press