Courtesy North Star Fire Facebook
Numerous wildfires, like the North Star fire that closed Highway 21 seen above, have spread throughout the northwest including many tribal lands.

Wildfires Scorching Northwest, Including Tribal Lands

Jack McNeel

Smoky skies cover much of the northwest due to numerous wildfires, prompting a Spokane TV weatherman on August 21 to comment that he had never seen smoke so bad in Spokane during his 35 years on the job. Hundreds of fires across Idaho and Washington started during the first half of August due to extremely dry conditions. Cooler temperatures over the past weekend and reduced wind gusts eased conditions somewhat but wildfires continue and no rain is in the forecast until at least next weekend.

RELATED: Wildfires Scorch More Than 500 Square Miles on Reservations in Northwest

The Colville Reservation in north central Washington was hit particularly hard with the North Star Fire, just north of Nespelem, listed at 150,000 acres as of Tuesday morning, August 25, according to Public Information Officer Donnie Davis. Nearly that entire acreage is within the Colville Reservation.

Tribal chairman Jim Boyd commented on television that one-eighth of the reservation was on fire. Tribal leaders on Monday held a conference call with Governor Jay Inslee asking for more assistance. Fire officials have acknowledged that crews are low and tribal leaders say that in some instances bulldozers have sat idle awaiting manpower assigned to them while portions of the reservation go up in flames.

RELATED: Fires, Drought, Melting Glaciers: Tribal Climate Experts Hope We Haven’t Passed the Tipping Point

Davis explained there are three levels of evacuation. Level three is the most critical and the northern portion of the North Star Fire has that listing and has been evacuated. “Level two is start gathering your valuables and what are you going to do with your pets,” he said. The town of Republic, about 15 miles north of the reservation was upgraded to level two on Sunday evening. Level one is not in immediate danger.

Davis stated that no homes or other structures have been destroyed by the North Star Fire as of Monday afternoon but 2,000 structures are threatened. By Tuesday morning it was still only 5 percent contained. He also noted that residents of the area have been “very, very supportive of the firefighters and their efforts.”

The Clearwater Complex in north central Idaho is located in large part on the Nez Perce Reservation and those fires have now consumed 47,260 acres. There have been 117 structures damaged including 47 homes. John DeGroot, Director of Forestry and Fire Management for the tribe explained there were two fire complexes on the reservation, mostly started from lightning strikes on August 10 and 11. “Most are now in a mop-up mode.” He added that other fires on Forest Service lands in Idaho and northeast Oregon are still burning on Nez Perce Treaty territory. “There’s still a lot of cultural resources the tribe is concerned with so we’re working with the U.S. Forest Service to try to protect those.”

Darren Williams, Public Information Officer for the Nez Perce Tribe said that only three of the homes lost were tribal housing plus one temporary structure. In addition, Social Services was working with about 40 other families who had problems related to pumps and electricity caused by fires surrounding the homes.

The Nez Perce community center in Kamiah was utilized as both a rest area for firefighters and their cafeteria provided free meals to any firefighters regardless of tribal or not and the tribal clinic at Kamiah was also utilized for anyone in need. Williams added that the tribe has a fire management unit which was deployed and worked with the U.S. Forest Service and also brought in additional resources such as water tenders through a third party contractor.

Williams explained that many fires are still burning off the reservation but crews are battling those fires. One fire, the Baldy Point Fire, includes a place sacred to the tribe called Baldy Point, and the tribe is asking the Forest Service to use suppression tactics to make sure the cultural site isn’t damaged.

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