Special Report: Wildfires devastate Southern California tribes

James May
10/31/03

SACRAMENTO, Calif. In what is being described as one of the biggest disasters in California history, Southern California's Indian tribes have been among the hardest hit.

A total of 10 wildfires statewide have engulfed more than 1,000 square miles and destroyed nearly 2,600 homes. As of October 30 there were 20 confirmed dead and several others missing.

To fully gauge the extent of the fires, Gov. Gray Davis noted in press reports that the total area burned exceeds the area of the state of Rhode Island and has virtually made the city of San Diego into an island. The besieged city is surrounded by fire on all sides except to the west where the Pacific Ocean lies.

In San Diego County at least 10 reservations have thus far been threatened or burned. The fires have been devastating to a number of reservations. Among the first hit was Rincon where 3,000 acres have been scorched out of a reservation total of 4,000.

Perhaps among the hardest hit was San Pasqual, where more than 60 homes were destroyed with two unconfirmed fatalities in the conflagration and whole sides of mountains have been consumed, something that has played out on a number of reservations.

Barona has lost over 40 homes and there are at least three confirmed fatalities from people who tried to flee the blaze via a narrow canyon road, though it has been reported that none of the fatalities were tribal members. Additionally the reservation lost a day care center and several smaller buildings though the casino escaped harm.

The Barona Casino became an emergency shelter as more than 3,000 people were stranded there from 4 p.m. on Oct. 25 until 5 p.m. the next day. The casino managed to keep power on while using an emergency generator.

The entire Capital Grande reservation was consumed by flames, however, sustained little or no property damage as there are not any residents or structures of any significance on the reservation.

The full extent of the damage to area reservations will not be assessed at least for another week at the fire has knocked out communications throughout much of the area and working phone lines are overloaded with calls into the area. Power is also out throughout a good portion of San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.

Though a small fire broke out near the Pechanga reservation, it was quickly put out and the tribal casino has become a temporary shelter for over 200 families from nearby tribes whom the tribe is allowing to stay free of charge. Likewise, the Pala Reservation near Fallbrook in San Diego County was also able to escape major catastrophe and is currently housing more than 150 evacuated tribal families.

However, Jim Fletcher, the superintendent for the Southern California region of the BIA reported that there are still 2,000 to 3,000 tribal people, possibly more, who have been evacuated.

At press time, the La Jolla, Santa Isabel and Mesa Grande reservations are currently under threat, though flames had not reached these reservations yet. Also under threat in that area is Palomar Mountain, with the famed space observatory.

Nikki Symington, who normally handles public relations for the Viejas tribe, has turned her office into a makeshift information center. She says that several Viejas tribal members stayed near their homes and braved a firewall that reached heights estimated at 75 feet or more.

Symington says that many homes were saved at Viejas by spraying a cooling mist at the fire thus stopping it in its tracks. Her main worry is now the aftermath of the disaster as she reports that whole hillsides are stripped of vegetation making the chances for large scale mudslides a serious concern when the first rains fall, which can occur now at any time.

Another concern is that water supplies will be contaminated in the area and Symington said that people already have to boil water to make it potable. Additionally the hillsides are reportedly strewn with charred animal carcasses, which can present further public health dangers.

Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger made the rounds in Washington, D.C. to obtain federal disaster relief funds. Fletcher said that he has been on the phone to BIA headquarters and is also working on obtaining federal funds for the tribes.

"I've been talking to Washington and meeting with tribes all week," said Fletcher. "We're working with them so they can recover as much as they can."

Though the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross are on the scene, the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA) has set up an initial fund of $5,000 as an additional source of revenue for those who have sustained losses.

CNIGA Executive Director Jacob Coin said that this will be a permanent fund to assist tribes in future disasters as well.

"We just wanted to take off a layer of bureaucracy (from the federal disaster relief) and make sure that tribal people are not being victimized twice," said Coin.

The fund is being established at Borrego Springs Bank, which is partially owned by the Viejas and San Manuel tribes.

Though the hot dry westward blowing Santa Ana winds that fueled the fires have died down, California Department of Fire officials said the fires are no where near contained and estimate that it might take another week or so to extinguish them.

If you would like to donate to the CNIGA disaster relief fund call Joanne McBride at the La Mesa branch of the Borrego Springs Bank at (619) 668-8147 for more information.

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