Funding for structures lost in fire examined

Noel Lyn Smith
Jesse Delmar, left, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety, and Capt. Gordon Toadlena, criminal investigation supervisor for the Window Rock Police Department, talk about the investigation into the Assayii Lake Fire during a Navajo Nation Council work session on Wednesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Discussion continued today among Navajo Nation Council committee members regarding a bill that proposes allocating more than $830,000 in supplemental funding to rebuild 27 structures in the Naschitti Chapter that were destroyed by the Assayii Lake Fire in 2014.

The funding would come from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance. A work session was held today after the bill was referred to three tribal council committees in April.

After listening to reports, committee members issued a directive to tribal departments to submit a position paper and recommendations for moving forward. The deadline for that document to be submitted is next month.

Delegate Jonathan Hale, who is the chairman of the Health, Education and Human Services Committee, said the paper would examine the structures that reportedly burned in the Ch'ooshgai Mountains and any assessments that need to be completed. It would also provide justification for the supplemental funding and examine the statute of limitations for possible prosecution for the cause of the 14,712-acre fire, he said.

The document would be complied by tribe’s Division of Public Safety, the Office of the Prosecutor, the Department of Agriculture, Risk Management and the Naschitti Chapter.

Hale added if the council approves the legislation and it is submitted to tribal President Russell Begaye, he will review the resolution, then determine if the appropriation "has merit" to be granted.

Naschitti Chapter President Hoskie Bryant called the action frustrating in an interview after the work session.

"It's kind of repetitive thing, that they give each other directives. … Our people down there need an answer," Bryant said.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that no official cause of the fire has been determined, despite chapter members being told tribal personnel started the fire, Bryant said.

"I don't know if they're covering it up. … Maybe an independent investigator needs to come in and look at those things," he said, adding that since the fire, chapter members have been working with tribal officials and departments without results.

The chapter also established the Assayii Burnout Committee, which will meet at 5 p.m. on Tuesday July 5 at the Naschitti Chapter house, Bryant said.

During the report by the Division of Public Safety, Capt. Gordon Toadlena, criminal investigations supervisor for the Window Rock Police Department, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed the cause of the fire and determined there was not enough evidence to prosecute anyone. The matter is under review by the tribe’s prosecutor's office, though, Toadlena said.

Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd, who is the Resources and Development Committee chairman, asked about statute of limitations for prosecution because the fire occurred two years ago.

"We don't want this to fall through the cracks," Shepherd said.

Jesse Delmar, executive director of the Division of Public Safety, said he thinks the statute of limitations doesn't take effect until three years have expired.

Delegate Edmund Yazzie, who serves as chairman of the Law and Order Committee, asked Delegate Norman M. Begay to explain his reasons for sponsoring the bill.

In response, Begay said he took over sponsorship after former Delegate Mel R. Begay was removed from the council this year. Begay, who represents the Alamo, Ramah and Tóhajiilee chapters, said he visited the area and saw the damage. The people want structures they can use, but they also have questions about whether they can rebuild, he said.

The fire originated in the Bowl Canyon Recreation Area in the Crystal Chapter.

Delegate Benjamin Bennett, who represents Crystal, said a number of his constituents have the desire to rebuild, as well, but the tribe’s forestry department has a moratorium on new construction in the Ch'ooshgai Mountains.

Hale said a directive had been given to the tribe's Attorney General's Office to examine the moratorium, but so far nothing has been submitted.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.