USA – As the Apple Fire continued to rage this week, spreading more than 43 miles through remote, mountainous terrain near Banning, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians has been caught on its perimeter.
An upper portion of the tribe’s reservation has been singed by flames, while its more populated lower half was bisected by evacuation notices.
But Morongo is also playing a critical role in battling the blaze, which had burned 29,267 acres by Friday morning. The tribe’s own Morongo Fire Department is responding alongside other units, and its reservation is being used as a staging area for equipment and crews from across the western United States. Water-dropping aircraft are also refilling their tanks on tribal land between drops.
As of Friday morning, overall containment of the Apple Fire hovered at 30%, as the many crews of wildland firefighters worked to control the fire and construct fire breaks, assisted by a contingent of fire engines, bulldozers and helicopters. Nearly 2,600 personnel are involved.
Thick smoke has blown hundreds of miles to the southeast, all the way to Arizona, and still covers the northern part of the Morongo reservation and some surrounding areas to the east. Firefighters are expected to maintain a presence as far as the high desert to prevent the fire from spreading.
Morongo Fire Chief Kevin Gaines, who retired from CAL Fire after 34 years and has been with Morongo’s department for five, said his brush unit has been working the fire since last Friday. The tribe is also working to protect areas that have cultural and historical significance to tribal members.
“Morongo firefighters train every day for situations just like this and we were dispatched soon after the fire started,” Gaines said.
The Morongo department, which was formed in the 1950s as a team of volunteer firefighters, is now made up of 24 full-time staff. From its inception, the department has responded to emergencies on the reservation, as well as in neighboring cities and across California.
Morongo firefighters helped fight several destructive 2018 wildfires in the state — the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire (which broke out the same day) and the Carr Fire — and was one of the first departments to respond to the 2006 Esperanza Fire, closer to home near Cabazon.
Gaines noted that with the Apple Fire, the blaze is moving through back-country that hasn’t been burned for a century. That far-flung location along with triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and steep terrain are hampering efforts to control the fire’s spread.
The part of the fire burning on the reservation is also miles from the closest home or structure.
“As a result, there is very limited roadway access to the fire line,” Gaines said. “Those roads are narrow dirt roads with one way in and out.”
Experiencing the fire from the reservation
At least 4,100 acres of remote, northern land on the reservation, which spans over 35,000 acres in total, have burned so far, the chief said.
The reservation’s western section was under a mandatory evacuation order on Saturday, while a wider, eastern swath was put under a warning. Roughly 50 homes were impacted by the mandatory order. By Tuesday that order had been lifted, though the warning has remained for several days.
Morongo member Alice Holmes, who lives closer to Interstate 10 and the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa, was just a few yards removed from the evacuation zone.
On Saturday afternoon, she stood outside for hours and watched as the fire seemed to make its way toward her area. She even packed two suitcases and put some personal documents in her car, ready to flee if necessary. Fortunately, the fire shifted that evening and started moving farther north.
“It was very eerie,” she said. “We watched this on TV with all of the fires from last year — and then here it is knocking on our back door.”
Since the weekend, the fire has shifted with the wind, intermittently blowing smoke closer to the reservation and then away again. On Tuesday, Holmes said she could still see smoldering hot spots on the hillsides and aircraft making frequent trips over the area, dropping red flame retardant.
“If they hadn’t worked so hard to do that the fire could have easily come over the mountain, south to where the communities are,” she said.
Holmes said she doesn’t remember a fire of this magnitude threatening the reservation for the last few years. Typically a fire might burn on either side, she said, not all the way across the upper canyons. And a separate brushfire also sprang up at the Whitewater Preserve, just east of the reservation, on Sunday afternoon, essentially creating a half circle of fire and smoke around the tribe’s lands.
Holmes described it as being surrounded by fire. “That hasn’t happened in a long time,” she said.
Holmes runs her own business, a well-known food stand called Alice’s Rez Kitchen, where she serves dishes like stuffed Native frybread and strawberry cheesecake. But she decided to close this week because of the nearness of the Apple Fire.
Her customers include residents from surrounding communities like Banning, Beaumont and Cabazon, and Holmes said she didn’t want to bring them into an area with evacuation notices.
“Inviting them to the reservation when there’s an evacuation order is not a safe thing to do,” she said. “I didn’t want to add to an already urgent situation.”
Assisting firefighters, handing out food
Farther up the reservation, on a street aptly named Foothill Road, Gregg Schafer works as the pastor for Morongo Moravian Church.
Schafer said the tribe’s security came by over the weekend, suggesting that residents in the evacuation zone leave their homes and regroup at the local community center. He and his family packed up their important belongings — hard drives from the house and church, along with their several pets — and left.
Though the family only waited at the community center for a few hours before going home, living only a few hills away from the fire was an alarming thought, Schafer said.
“It wasn’t too bad until I went to sleep,” he said. “You go to bed and you’re like ‘Well, am I going to get woken up at 2 or 3 in the morning with firemen banging on my door, telling me to get out of my house?’”
Since last Saturday, the church’s parking lot has been one of several staging areas for fire units. There’s been a steady flow of firefighters and trucks, preparing to trade in and fight the fire, since then.
Schafer said church members have brought water, Gatorade, fruit, granola bars and coffee for the firefighters, and the church’s bathrooms and a shady pavilion outside are open for use by the crews. His son’s boss at a nearby Coldstone Creamery also donated 150 small ice creams, which the church has been handing out.
“(You realize) they’re going up to do this dangerous work, all I’m doing is giving them food,” Schafer said. “They’re tremendous guys — not only brave, but how they show care for people.”
While firefighters have been on the scene, day and night, for over six days, the fire is still burning. Officials are targeting Aug. 17 for full containment.
In bordering San Bernardino County, an evacuation order remained in effect Thursday for all areas east of Oak Glen Road, including Potato Canyon and Pine Bench north of the county line. Morongo Valley, Forest Falls, Pioneertown, and Rimrock are under warnings.
Riverside County’s existing warning near Morongo’s reservation has been expanded to include the area east of Whitewater, north of Interstate 10, west of Highway 62, and south of the San Bernardino County line.
Schafer added that, on the reservation, the fire still appears the most ominous at night; he and his family first moved to California and to the reservation three years ago, and they’re still getting used to the threat of wildfires.
“During the day you just see smoke, but at night you start to see the glowing fires on the mountains in the back,” he said. “That’s a reminder that it’s still going on, it’s still there.”
Amanda Ulrich covers Native American issues in Southern California for The Desert Sun. She is also a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.