NASCHITTI — Roy Benally was among the Naschitti Chapter residents evacuated Sunday from homes located on the Ch'ooshagi Mountains as flames moved toward the area.
"I didn't bring anything but my flashlight and my cell phone," he said, removing a small flashlight from his pocket on Monday morning.
He slept Sunday night inside the Naschitti Senior Citizen Center, which had its main area transformed into a shelter with temporary beds and tables holding towels, bottles of shampoo, soap and lotion.
His relocation from the Forest Lake area was the result of the Assayi Lake Fire, which started on Friday in the Bowl Canyon area, near Crystal.
It was estimated to have burned 11,000 acres as of early Monday afternoon and continued to move east due to high winds, said Arlene Perea, public information officer for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 3, which assumed responsibility for the fire on Monday morning.
She added that an infrared flight would be conducted over the fire area after midnight Tuesday, which would allow the incident management team to get a better idea of the size of the blaze.
Approximately 800 personnel from all over the Southwest have responded but the fire's containment remained at zero, Perea said.
Meanwhile, smoke from the fire continues to travel by high winds into Naschitti and surrounding chapters and was visible from Farmington and southern Colorado.
Benally, 72, is a lifelong mountain resident and is worried about his house and the new roofing that was being installed after years of needing repair.
"I've seen fire but not like this, not enough to chase me out of my home," he said.
Throughout the weekend, Johnnie Woods and Elaine Silversmith Woods saw a lot of smoke moving through their residence but were not concerned about the fire until they were ordered to leave by law enforcement personnel.
With no time to pack any belongings, Johnnie Woods left behind his medication and his wallet.
"I need to go back up there and to get it," he said.
Thomas Benally was evacuated from the Sand Spring area of the mountains but stayed at his son's house in Sheep Springs.
"I don't know how to say it, it's sad," Benally said, then later added that he is worried about his three horses and cattle.
He was escorted by a forest ranger on Sunday evening to his residence so he could release one of his horses from its corral.
Benally, 62, said the fire was near the corral and he had enough time to open the enclosure before leaving.
As for the cattle, he hopes they moved to the lower areas of the mountains.
"I'm worried because that's my life, that's my herd," he said.
As of 3 p.m. on Monday, an evacuation order was issued by the Navajo Nation Police Department for the entire Naschitti Chapter, according to an announcement posted on the incident management team's website.
On Monday morning, the east and west bound lanes of New Mexico Highway 134, which travels from Sheep Springs through Narbona Pass to Crystal, was closed by the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
Central Consolidated School District closed summer operations at Newcomb High, Newcomb Middle, Newcomb Elementary and Naschitti Elementary until further notice due to heavy smoke from the fire.
The fire was whipped by winds on Monday and the National Weather Service forecasts gusts as high as 40 miles per hour through Wednesday.
With high winds continuing to move smoke into Farmington, the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management advises residents to reduce exposure to smoky air by remaining indoors; setting air conditioning units and automobile vent systems to recirculation; limiting outdoor activities if the odor of smoke is in the air; and, for individuals who have asthma or other heart or lung disease, following their doctor's orders about smoke exposure.
The department warns that smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, scratchy throats or irritated sinuses.
On Monday, the Navajo Nation Commission of Emergency Management declared a state of emergency for the areas impacted by the fire.
The declaration follows the executive order restricting fires on the reservation that was signed on June 12 by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Bureau of Indian Affairs Regional Area Director Sharon Pinto.
Among the listed items prohibited by the executive order were open fires and open burning of croplands, fields, rangeland, debris and weeds.