Wildfires threaten tribal sacred sites

Wildfires threaten tribal sacred sites

13 August 2008

published by www.mercurynews.com

USA — Two wildfires are bearing down on Native American sacred sites, leaving Yurok tribal members concerned that places long used for worship will be left blackened and destroyed.

Flames burning through the Six Rivers and Klamath National Forests are encroaching on holy sites like Little Medicine Mountain, Doctor Rock and Chimney Rock.

“These are highly significant places for prayer and for gathering medicine,” said Matt Mais, spokesman for the 5,500 member Yurok Tribe. “The tribe is watching these fires very closely.”

The two fires are burning in a remote section of the Klamath River watershed, which is integral to the region’s salmon fishery and dotted with sites important to tribal ceremonies and legends.

One fire has thus far burned 97.4 square miles and the other 15.2 square miles. The fires were sparked by lightning strikes in June and are now 69 percent contained. The two fires were about one mile apart on Wednesday afternoon.

Firefighters are allowing the fires to burn through uninhabited forests and steep canyons, though efforts are under way to remove brush and tree limbs to contain the blaze. No homes are threatened by the flames.

A few tribal members had voiced apprehensions over firefighters’ efforts to conflate and contain the two blazes by intentionally lighting a back fire. They’re afraid the firefighters’ tactics might cause more damage to their sacred sites than the wildfire would.

Fire officials say they will continue with efforts to combine the two wildfires and that the U.S. Forest Service and firefighters are meeting regularly with tribal leaders.

“We just want to have as little impact as possible,” said U.S. Forest Service spokesmen Dave Schmitt. “We want to keep the fire in the wilderness and be sensitive to the tribe’s concerns.”

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