California, USA — As thewildfires that scorched stretches of southern California were tamed andresidents began returning to devastated neighborhoods in late October, a dozentribes continued to rely on their main source of relief: each other.
The 35 wildfires that roared through seven counties in seven days beforesimmering revealed long-standing discrepancies in state and federal aid thatsome are comparing to Hurricane Katrina, as isolated Native and Latinocommunities were left to mostly fend for themselves during the fires.
”The response has been lackluster at best,” said Sonny Skyhawk, a RosebudSioux who lives in Pasadena, on Oct. 26. ”What happened in Katrina is almostthe same as what’s happening on the reservations.”
On one of the hardest-hit reservations, La Jolla in northern San Diego County,about 50 evacuees returned to battle the Poomacha Fire. Some state firefightingcrews assisted, but by Oct. 25 a third of the homes were destroyed – 50 houses.
”I’ve never in my life seen such brave men. They were tired, hungry, dirty andstill joking around even though many had lost their homes,” said Paula Stigler,tribal liaison for the San Diego Foundation. ”The resources became so stretchedthat La Jolla, being in such a remote area, it was very difficult to get tothem. They still need help.”
Help arrived as fires continued to smolder atop the La Jolla reservation Oct.30, eight days after they began. In a meeting on the Rincon reservation betweentribes and state and federal agencies, including the IHS, Federal EmergencyManagement Agency and BIA, officials promised further assistance was on the way.
The BIA already has 211 firefighters on the ground, half the department’s crew,said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Carl Artman. An erosion team isassessing prevention strategies and housing agencies are working to providemodular homes from Texas and Arkansas, he said. City and county agencies areworking on water and sewage issues, he said.
”We’re not going to let issues of lack of people stand in the way,” saidArtman, who added that the BIA has already provided $578,000 in generalassistance funds for individuals and is prepared to provide more.
”The federal, state and local governments are all working together to help outthere, and from the tribal perspective what you saw is tribes coming togetherand acting as a unified community,” he said. ”While there may be a lot ofdebates between tribes at any given time, at these times of crisis this is anIndian country community.”
On the first days of the fire, tribes across southern California formed a web ofaid stretching from the Morongo reservation 40 miles east of Los Angeles down tothe southeastern Viejas reservation.
”It’s unfortunate that reservations are usually the last to receive relief,”said Rose Salgado, a Soboba tribal councilman. ”Because that’s a known fact,tribes immediately rally together to provide for other tribes in time of need.”
That has happened every time wildfires have threatened the region’s isolatedreservations in unincorporated rural areas beyond city-funded fire districts,said Rincon spokesman Nikki Symington.
Tribes have ”typically been left to fight fires with their own volunteerresources,” she said.
Since mid-October, 130 homes have been lost on reservation land in one of themost destructive series of firestorms in recent state history, scorching 517,450acres, destroying 3,087 structures and killing seven people, according to thestate’s Office of Emergency Services.
Fires burned more than 30,000 acres of reservation land, said Jim Fletcher,superintendent for the BIA in southern California. The La Jolla and Rinconreservations suffered the most damage, including the loss of Rincon’s chapel,built in the late 1800s. Others affected included the Barona, Inaja-Cosmit, MesaGrande, Pala, Pauma-Yuima, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel and Viejas.
A half-million people across southern California were evacuated – the largestnumber in state history.
As fire conditions improved, evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium were evacuated for theChargers game Oct. 28. Rumors of deportations had frightened many Latinofamilies away from the stadium, after reports that San Diego police arrested aMexican family Oct. 24 for allegedly stealing food to resell. They were deported.
Fewer than 1,500 people remained in public shelters in the final week of October,down from more than 20,000.
Hundreds of Native evacuees remained on the reservations of other tribes, inhotels and shelters.
Viejas provided meals to evacuation centers and evacuees being housed at thePechanga Resort, and opened its recreation center and its casino’s buffet tofirefighters, said spokesman Robert Scheid.
The Santa Ysabel gym has become a hub for donations, said Vice Chairman BrandieTaylor. Some Santa Ysabel evacuees are staying on the Soboba, Borrego andPechanga reservations, but a majority have left to be housed at the Yavapai/Apachereservation in Verde Valley, Ariz.
”Their tribe will be taking care of lodging and food,” Taylor said. ”We areextremely grateful.”
At Soboba’s The Oaks Retreat lodge, in the foothills of the Hemet/San JacintoValley, about 60 Santa Ysabel, La Jolla and Rincon evacuees were being servedhot meals and provided gift cards and services at its IHS clinic, said spokesmanMike Hiles.
At least a dozen housed there are children, and about half the people have losttheir homes, Salgado said.
”For one couple, this is their second time in four years they have lost theirhome,” she said.
The nonprofit organization Convoy of Hope brought a semi-truck loaded withsupplies including food, water, clothing, toys and medicine collected at Soboba,delivering the items to hard-hit reservations in north San Diego County, Hilessaid.
The La Jolla, Rincon, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual and Santa Ysabel reservations arestill seeking food, clothing and medical supplies. Closures on highways 76 and79 halted deliveries into the region, tribal administrators said in statements.
The state’s Office of Emergency Services provided La Jolla with some generatorsand water.
Some gaming tribes whose lands were not devastated by the fires, includingMorongo and San Manuel, have contributed hefty sums to relief efforts. SanManuel donated $1 million to relief organizations, designating a portion totribes.
In recent years, gaming tribes, including the Rincon, have also used casinoprofits to build their own fire departments and water storage facilities, saidSymington, the Rincon spokesman.
Most Indian casinos in San Diego County are safe havens built to withstand windsand wildfires ”and all that comes with them – electrical outage, phonedisruption and shortages of food and water,” she said.
A Red Cross shelter set up in the Harrah’s Rincon Resort and Casino is alsoseeking donations of food, clothing, diapers, toys and juice, Rincon ChairmanVernon Wright said in a statement.
The hotel had been closed to house 350 evacuees, firefighters and lawenforcement officers.
Some evacuees have returned home, but nearly 100 people remained there atmonth’s end – some non-tribal members whose nearby trailers or homes had burned,Wright said.
”We worry that these people will be essentially homeless, unless some agency ororganization can be found to assist with relocation,” he said.