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As the investigation continues into the cause of last week's fire, Navajo Nation officials have taken steps toward providing residents information about the blaze and safety in the area

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AZTEC — During a planning meeting today, San Juan County, federal and Navajo Nation officials agreed that getting information to residents about last week's oil tank fire in Nageezi  is the next needed step as the investigation into the cause of the fire continues.

The fire, which started at a WPX Energy site off U.S. Highway 550, burned itself out on Thursday. No one was injured in the incident, but several families were forced to evacuate their homes.

WPX officials did not attend the meeting, which was held at the county's Fire Operations Center in Aztec, saying they needed to focus on the investigation into what caused the fire at 36 storage tanks at the well site, which only recently began producing oil and gas.

Kelly Swan, WPX spokesman, said in email this evening that it was too early to say when the investigation will be completed.

"(The investigation) could take days or weeks," Swan said. "(It) needs to be a thorough, careful, deliberate process. Answers are very important."

Danny Simpson, the Nageezi Chapter's community services coordinator, called the meeting to ask for help in informing all residents, including those who may not have evacuated, about their safety.

Simpson attended two meetings WPX held for evacuated residents on Thursday at a Bloomfield hotel. He said today that many community members have concerns and questions about the fire.

"Our community members want to know," Simpson said. "They want answers. It's not just the individuals who evacuated. It's the community members, too."

Mike Mestas, the county’s new emergency manager, agreed.

He said he would put together a document outlining information discussed at the hotel meetings and send a draft to tribal officials for their input. The resulting information will be printed and distributed "as soon as possible" to better inform residents who live near the WPX site, he said.

Nageezi Chapter President Ervin Chavez said community members would benefit by having that information delivered to their homes.

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Chavez also said protections need to be established for residents who live in close proximity to oil and gas development.

"I'm really concerned about the lack of an emergency plan, where the chapters were not included in any of those plans," Chavez told the officials at today's meeting.

County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty told Chavez that creating specific evacuation plans is difficult because of the unique characteristics of emergency incidents.

"You can build an evacuation plan, but it's about as good as the paper it's written on," Daugherty said. "You're going to have that stack of papers in your building, and nobody's going to use it. When somebody calls 911, we respond down there, we make a plan and we do it, based on where that fire's at, who's impacted, what's going to happen at that time and we play that out and get people out of the way (of danger). Any given incident is going to be unique to that incident. Each situation is going to be so unique, so to try to plan that is dang near impossible."

Daugherty said residents affected by the fire used common sense and self-evacuated, and emergency crews followed up by going door-to-door several times to make sure everyone was safe.

Chavez said establishing half-mile safety zones for residents who live near rural oil and gas development in checkerboard land such as the Nageezi area ought to be drafted into drilling leases. He said his chapter is trying to find a permanent housing solution for the Murphy family who was displaced because of the fire.

Federal Indian Minerals Office Director Johnna Oberly told Chavez that kind of change to the lease rules would require action by the Navajo Nation government. Oberly's Farmington office manages the oil and gas lease WPX obtained to drill the six-well site earlier this year. She said the site has been managed effectively.

"This was an unfortunate event," Oberly said. "Because this caught everybody off guard, I don't think we could have done any better than we did."

Oberly emphasized the work WPX put into the production site, including a road the company built to provide access for the Murphy family. She also said the Murphys were housed by WPX over the weekend.

Chavez said that despite efforts to provide relief for affected residents, more should be done to protect families like the Murphys.

A community meeting to share findings from WPX's investigation will be scheduled when those results are in, according to company officials.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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