Navajo Nation declares state of emergency due to extreme heat

By: - July 28, 2023 11:04 am
climate change

Photo by Getty Images

With temperatures hitting well above 110 degrees in the southern parts of Arizona, the Navajo Nation in the northern parts of the state is also feeling the effects of the heat waves. 

Parts of the Navajo Nation have experienced above-average temperatures throughout the summer, with some parts reaching or nearing 100-degree temperatures. 

For instance, Chinle, Arizona hit a high of 97 degrees on July 26, according to the National Weather Service. 

The extreme heat has prompted officials on the Navajo Nation to declare a state of emergency. The Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management passed the declaration on July 25, and Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Vice President Richelle Montoya signed in agreement on the same day.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

The declaration allows the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management to seek assistance from federal, state, other tribal governments and local or private agencies to address emergency and disaster-related situations caused by the extreme heat.

In the declaration the Navajo Nation states that “heat extreme events present risks to human health and well-being of people, ecosystems, agriculture, property, livestock, pets, infrastructure, homes, roads, heat dries up sources of surface water for wildlife, the potential for wildland fires increase, and existing drought conditions become exacerbated from extreme heat conditions.”

Heat puts human health, and the well-being of people at risk, and one of the primary methods of combating heat is having access to cool spaces.

“Air-conditioning is the number-one protective factor against extreme heat, which is an essential health resource for vulnerable populations,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That may be hard for some families living on the Navajo Nation because there are still households within it that don’t have access to electricity. 

Approximately 15,000 families on the Navajo Nation live without electricity, according to Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. 

Not having access to cooling methods leaves those living on the Navajo Nation at risk of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. 

“Extreme heat events can be dangerous to health – even fatal,” according to the CDC. “Small children, the elderly, and certain other groups, including people with chronic diseases, low-income populations, and outdoor workers, have a higher risk for heat-related illness.”

The Navajo Nation’s state of emergency declaration indicates that the Navajo people, communities and government have some adaptive measures to mitigate extreme heat. However, these adaptive measures vary, and additional cross-sectoral collaboration is needed to meet the burgeoning necessity to address heat-related impacts, risks and vulnerabilities.

Through the state of emergency, the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management is tasked with finding the appropriate Navajo Nation entities to begin the collaboration process with outside entities for additional resources to address the extreme heat. 

The commission plans to work to identify the most impacted areas on the Navajo Nation and coordinate implementing heat health action plans. 

One ecosystem impacted by the heat includes the forests surrounding the Navajo Nation, from pest infestations to an increased risk of wildfires. 

Frankie Thompson, a program manager with the Navajo Nation Forestry, said his main concern during heat waves is the fire risks.

The Navajo Nation has not had any major fires this season, Thompson said, but fire restrictions are usually set in place by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

Thompson said they monitor humidity, temperatures and wind because they are the main factors in wildfires.

Another concern during the heat is pests that start to attack the trees. Thompson said they’ve been dealing with ips, a beetle that burrows its way into the bark of a tree, where it will lay eggs and slowly start to kill the tree. 

Having an influx of ips results from the heat and the ongoing drought the Navajo Nation is experiencing. Thompson said the extreme heat causes the drought, the drought weakens the tree, and the trees cannot push the ips out of their bark with their sap. 

“There is no natural protection for the tree,” Thompson said. 

That is one way the heat has contributed to the loss of trees in the forest, but Thomspon said that the hotter it is during the day, the longer the trees are holding their breath, and they’re unable to breathe until it starts to cool down.

The Navajo Nation has been impacted by the drought for years, and Thompson said the effects of the heat have been seen before, and people will notice the change in the trees over time.

“It’s happened before,” he said, and seeing the overall damage on a forest will take years of observation, not just from this drought period. 

The Navajo Nation’s state of emergency declaration will remain in effect through Aug. 31 unless it is extended, modified, or terminated by the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.

MORE FROM AUTHOR