October 28, 2007

18 wildfires in California taking a toll on California Indian reservations


The wildfires roaring across Southern California have burned more than
17,200 acres of land on the Yuina, Rincon, La Jolla, San Pasqual and Pala
reservations, said Jim Fletcher, superintendent for the BIA in southern


Another 8,960 acres have burned on the Capitan Grande, Mesa Grande, Santa
Ysabel, Barona, Jamul and Inaja-Cosmit reservations.

The fires have caused at least $1 billion in damage in San Diego County
alone and have led to the largest evacuation in state history. At least
500,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, including thousands of
tribal members.

All Don Magee could see was darkness when he looked outside
his office on the Pala Band of Mission Indians reservation Oct. 24.

The sky above the reservation 55 miles northeast of San Diego was covered
in a thick fog and ashes were “falling all over,” said Magee, the tribe’s
housing director.

“You can’t see the sun,” he said by telephone.

Fletcher has called a meeting with tribes and federal officials Oct. 30 to
assess the damage and coordinate the relief effort.

“Mesa Grande is a poor tribe and La Jolla does not have gaming operations,”
he said. “Those folks need a lot of help.”

Across San Diego County, gaming tribes are continuing to assist those whose
reservations are being devastated by wildfires.

More than 1,400 homes have been destroyed in the 18 fires raging in seven
counties, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.


At least 41 homes on the La Jolla reservation have burned along with 65 on
the Rincon reservation and five on the Yuina reservation, Fletcher said. To
the southeast, a fire swept through a 900-acre parcel where the Mesa Grande
tribe keeps a herd of 45 bison.

The bison are now loose, Fletcher said, but tribal members must remain
evacuated. The Jamul Indian Village and the San Pasqual casino have also
been evacuated.

Fires have melted water lines on the La Jolla reservation, causing water
mains to burst. A well has been lost and the tribe is working to have the
reservation declared a disaster area, according to the Native American
Environmental Protection Coalition.

The lack of water has also been an issue on the reservation of the Campo
Band of Kumeyaay Indians, 60 miles east of San Diego. Nearby fires have led
to power outages that have disrupted the electrical power pumps, said
tribal administrator Lisa Gover.

Less violent winds offered some hope to the more than 8,800 firefighters
Oct. 24, but more homes remained on the path of the fast-moving fires
driven by furious Santa Ana winds across drought-stricken lands, burning
more than 426,000 acres thus far.

The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services attributed at least one death
to the wildfires, while some news reports placed the number at five. State
officials were continuing to order mandatory evacuations Oct. 24.

More than 50 shelters statewide were housing more than 22,000 people.
Thousands have streamed into San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, which is being
praised in comparison to the conditions of shelters set up at the Louisiana
Superdome and Houston’s Astrodome during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

President Bush has signed a major disaster declaration for California that
will provide long-term federal recovery programs to assist state and local
governments, families, individuals and nonprofit organizations.

Meanwhile, gaming tribes are housing tribal evacuees and donating food,
supplies and funding for emergency response crews.

On the morning of Oct. 23, evacuees being housed at the Pala hotel were
evacuated once again, along with about 400 Pala tribal members, to homes of
relatives and free hotel rooms and RV spaces offered by the Pechanga Band
of Luiseno Mission Indians in nearby Temecula.

The Pechanga are providing hotel rooms for about 250 tribal members from
the La Jolla, Mesa Grande, Santa Ysabel, Pala and Pauma bands, said Jacob
Mejia, public affairs director for the Pechanga Development Corp.

The 522-room hotel is now full, so the American Red Cross has provided
cots, he said. Council members are purchasing clothing and toiletries for
people who left their homes quickly without any belongings, and the tribe
is providing free meals to evacuees.

“It’s really bad out here,” Mejia said. “We’re doing everything we can for
people who come this way.”

The tribe assisted in similar efforts during the Cedar Fire in October
2003, known as the worst California wildfire of the past decade. It killed
15 people and burned nearly 300,000 acres in San Diego County.

Rumors of destroyed homes from the current wildfires are worrying evacuees,
but fire officials in north San Diego Country have yet to prepare a list of
homes affected, Mejia said.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that the winds are going down, but it raises
other risks because that creates the opportunity for the fire to change
directions,” he said.

The Santa Ana winds begin in eastern deserts and whip quickly over
mountains and through canyons to reach southern California communities.

The summer fire season lasts through October, though officials consider the
season to be almost year-round in southern California because of continuous

Don Hankins, a geography professor at California State University at Chico
and a member of the Miwok Tribe, says the problem could be alleviated with
a return to traditional burning techniques to clear brush.

“Prior to the curtailment of Native burning, there weren’t these large
fires that consume hundreds of thousands of acres in one fire,” he said.
“They were frequently quite patchy and ranged in scale from an individual
plant to perhaps a few thousand acres.”

As wildfires continue to rage, Sonny Skyhawk, a member of the Rosebud Sioux
in South Dakota who lives in Pasadena, is helping to coordinate relief
efforts there on behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation in New York. (The OIN
owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)

He said 60 rooms have also been offered by hotels owned by the Agua
Caliente and the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

Another wealthy gaming tribe, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians,
previously contributed more than $1 million to the American Red Cross and
is now funding two Red Cross emergency response vehicles, said tribal
spokesman Waltona Manion.

The reservation has not been affected by wildfires, but some tribal members
who live outside remain worried about their homes.

Tribal member Emeline Laiwa said her 19-year-old nephew had to evacuate a
home he recently purchased for $1 million in Alpine, about 30 miles
northwest of San Diego.

“He said, ‘I left my sprinkler on and my hose running,'” she said. “We’re
keeping our fingers crossed; we’re just praying for him.”

For more information on the wildfires or how to help:


* The San Diego Foundation’s emergency fire relief fund for tribes

* American Red Cross

* Map of federally recognized California tribes

* Southern California Fire Report

AUTHOR: Shadi Rahimi

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