Family concerned about response time to brush fire

County fire chief says Navajo Nation doing 'injustice' to residents

Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
  • Three sheds, a travel trailer and multiple vehicles were destroyed by the fire.
  • Three people were transported to San Juan Regional Medical Center for treatment.
  • A family member started the fire when sparks from a torch landed on the ground, catching grass on fire.

FARMINGTON — Members of a family whose homes were nearly destroyed by a brush fire are questioning why it took firefighters nearly an hour to respond to the blaze after they called 911 as multiple structures and vehicles burned to the ground. 

They aired their concerns as the Navajo President Russell Begaye issued an executive order today implementing fire restrictions on Navajo territory because of high fire danger.

Property damage from Tuesday's fire is pictured on Wednesday at a home along County Road 7010 south of Farmington.

Firefighters from around San Juan County were dispatched Tuesday afternoon to a brush fire near several homes along County Road 7010, about 2 1/2 miles east of the intersection of County Road 7010 and N.M. Highway 371 south of Farmington.

Read:Brush fire destroys sheds, vehicles near several homes

Standing near a travel trailer that was destroyed by the fire on the family's property, Fidenci Tsosie told The Daily Times her 14-year-old daughter Gabriella Tsosie called 911 at about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

"It took them a long time, probably like a hour to get here," Fidenci said. 

One firefighter from the Shiprock fire station was dispatched and took nearly an hour to get to the scene, according to San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daughtery. Once at the scene, the firefighter called to request assistance.

The San Juan County Fire Department was dispatched to the scene at approximately 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Daughtery said.

Firefighters from five San Juan County Fire Department districts, the Farmington Fire Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Nation Fire Department responded to the fire.

Resident Kennard Tsosie surveys fire damage Wednesday at his home along County Road 7010 south of Farmington.

The New Mexico State Police and the Navajo Nation Police Department also responded to the scene.

Daughtery said there was only one Navajo Nation firefighter on call Tuesday afternoon to cover Ojo Amarillo, Newcomb and Shiprock.

"If it hadn't been for us coming up here, we would have seen probably seven structures ... seven homes would have burned," Daughtery said. "It's time that the public knows what the Navajo Nation is doing. They are doing a complete injustice to these communities out here."

Navajo Nation Fire Chief Larry Chee declined to comment on the fire, referring questions to the BIA Fire and Aviation Department, which has jurisdiction over brush fires on the reservation.

More:County: Nation hasn't fully funded stations

Nearly 20 trucks and tanks from the fire departments were used to contain the fire. 

Three sheds containing automotive tools and parts were destroyed by the fire, along with a travel trailer and about 10 motor vehicles, according to Gabriella and Fidenci.

Five of the seven homes were scorched by the flames and suffered exterior damage, Daughtery said.

Three people were transported to the San Juan Regional Medical Center for injuries and possible smoke inhalation. Fidenci's husband Kennard Tsosie and father-in-law Samuel Benally were transported by ambulance, along with a San Juan County firefighter.

A vehicle burned during Tuesday's fire is pictured Wednesday at a home along County Road 7010 south of Farmington.

Kennard later was released and returned to the property Tuesday evening. He was using a torch on the west side of the property when sparks from the torch hit the ground, starting the fire, according to Fidenci.

Members of the family used water and sand to keep the flames from advancing toward the homes. Kennard and other family members jumped in vehicles near the flames and drove them away from the fire.

At one point, Gabriella jumped in a pickup truck to drive it away from the fire. She said she burned her arm a little in the process.

While she waited for first responders, Fidenci said she cried as people parked their cars on the side of the road to watch the fire as the family worked to keep the flames away from the homes.

The fire occurred about eight months after the Navajo Nation took control of three fire stations on tribal land that once were operated by the county. In October, San Juan County completed the transfer of operation of fire stations in Shiprock, Ojo Amarillo and Newcomb to the Navajo Nation.

Begaye proclaimed the tribe's interest in managing the stations on tribal land after Navajo officials were asked to pay a part of the costs to operate the stations by County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter, according to The Daily Times archives. 

More:County approves Navajo fire stations agreement

The stations were scheduled to be transferred to the tribe on April 1, 2016, but tribal officials sought an extension of the existing agreement a month before that because they had not filled 15 positions needed to staff the three stations. The nation wound up taking over the stations on Oct. 4, 2016.

There are three open firefighter positions each for the Ojo Amarillo and Newcomb fire stations on the Navajo Nation Department of Personnel Management's website. 

More:Shiprock Chapter opposes fire station takeover

An executive order from Begaye that was signed this afternoon said the Navajo Forestry Department and BIA Fire and Aviation recommended the fire restrictions due to a combination of high winds, low humidity, high temperatures and inadequate precipitation.

The order prohibits the possession, sale and use of fireworks on tribal land, as well as starting and using a fire or campfire with charcoal and coal, except in areas where fire grills and rings are provided.

It also prohibits the use of a firearm or incendiary device without a valid permit, the order states.

Anyone found guilty of violating the executive order could be fined up to $5,000.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.