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NASCHITTI — Authorities from multiple agencies continue to investigate suspicious fires that burned five structures here this week. Investigators suspect arson.

A late-night fire on Aug. 20 destroyed three unoccupied buildings that belong to the Naschitti Christian Reformed Church. The church also sustained smoke and fire damage in a separate incident.

Investigators from federal, county and tribal agencies continued processing the scene of the Aug. 20 fire on the afternoon of Aug. 21.

"Law enforcement is asking for the public's help in finding the person or persons responsible for a series of fires that damaged several buildings in Naschitti, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, this week," the FBI stated in a press release Aug. 22.

Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said personnel from the Navajo Nation Fire Station in Newcomb were dispatched to the scene at 11:56 p.m. on Aug. 20.

Trading post gutted

The four buildings are located south of the Naschitti Trading Post, which was destroyed in an early morning fire on Aug. 19.

The area is visible from U.S. Highway 491. Vehicles were seen on Aug. 20 parking along the shoulder of the highway, so occupants can view the scene and take photographs.

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Jerome Sandoval, board president for the church, said when he arrived at the location the middle building was on fire and one firefighter was trying to extinguish the blaze.

The fire spread to the other structures after the fire engine ran out of water, then left to refill at the chapter house, Sandoval said.

He added that his son walked behind the church and noticed a window had been broken and he saw smoke in the building.

"He went and found me. We opened the door and smoke came out, really thick smoke," Sandoval said.

Old church and trading post remembered

The structures were built in the 1930s and two served as residences for the church pastor and the assistant pastor, according to Sandoval.

The middle building was the original church, then was used for storage after the current church was built in the late 1960s, he said.

"Most of us know how it is inside, we worshiped here. Our grandparents brought us here, so we're attached to it," Sandoval said.

Sandoval, who grew up in Naschitti, also shared memories about the decades-old trading post.

"In the earlier days there was fresh meat there and our families used to charge to get groceries," he said adding it was a place to community members to gather.

Police Chief Francisco said the fire department responded to the store fire at 1:39 a.m. on Aug. 19 and the structure was declared a total loss at about 4:30 a.m.

Community reacts

Members of the community talked about the fires during a meeting at the Naschitti Chapter house on Aug. 21.

Roberto Taboada, spokesman for the Central Consolidated School District, said the district has been paying close attention to the situation because it operates the Naschitti Elementary School.

"Counselors have been available for students and staff. Also, we are providing round-the-clock security at the school and keeping close contact with the Navajo Police Department," Taboada said.

The FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety, and the San Juan County Fire Department are the investigating agencies, the FBI release stated. Anybody with information can call the FBI at (505) 889-1300.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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