Courtesy inciweb
“Everyone is exhausted because we’re having to work so hard just to breathe. Many of us, including me, have been evacuated at one point or another. It’s been catastrophic up here.”

‘Can’t Breathe, Can’t See’: Struggling to Live Through Wildfires

Jack McNeel

The impact of wildfires lasts well beyond the time when the last ember is extinguished. Communities are affected, as are individuals and industries. Nearly every segment of tribal life is affected and some will continue to be for years to come.

RELATED: Wildfires Rage On, Fire Departments Running Out of Men

Jackie Richter on the Colville Reservation talks of the North Star Fire and how life has changed already and what she foresees. “Most of the time our visibility has been about 200 yards and on Tuesday it was more like 100 feet. You can’t hardly drive it’s so bad. Everyone is exhausted because we’re having to work so hard just to breathe. Many of us, including me, have been evacuated at one point or another. It’s been catastrophic up here. There’s not a corner of this county that fire hasn’t touched. It’s a large county, one of the largest in the nation. Our elders talk about never seeing anything like it.

RELATED: Evacuations Ordered, Northwest Looks to Sky for Relief From Wildfires

“We have so many horses on the reservation and they’re everywhere. We need help for fencing supplies to put livestock in. We need hay, that type of stuff. People lost most of their equipment to even build fences. There’s going to be a lot of agricultural needs,” she added.

Richter explained that both federal and state programs generally don’t allow for perimeter fencing. “It’s the last thing to get funded.” Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover those costs unless a rider has been added specifically covering those costs. “People are missing hundreds of head of cattle. Horses are missing because they had to turn them out, the fire came so fast.”

RELATED: Wildfires Scorching Northwest, Including Tribal Lands

She explained that the Colville Reservation’s primary revenue source is from timber. “It’s going to have a massive impact on all of us.” Her husband owns a log truck. “It’s been sitting three weeks now.”

People from various departments have been pulled off those jobs to help with the fire issues. Richter normally works in an agricultural job. Kathy Moses works in environmental trust.

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

Moses talked about the effect the fires will have on wildlife. “You see deer fleeing from the fires and bears trying to get away. This is going to be a big issue for the Colville Tribe because we depend on hunting seasons. With climate change and the waters heating up fish are dying. It’s a big issue.” Perhaps an even larger issue with animals in the long term is the probability of starvation and how severe that is will depend on how rapidly the habitat can respond and how severe the winter is.

“The North Star Fire has gone through two of our major mountains, Moses Mountain and Strawberry Mountain,” Moses said. “Those are places we go out to and get our huckleberries. It’s a sad situation.”

School starts have been delayed for at least two weeks on the reservation. The Ferry County Fair was cancelled because of the fires. “It’s sad because kids have worked hard on those projects,” Richter said. “There’s nothing that hasn’t been touched by this fire. It’s burned through some of the tribe’s HUD housing. People are still without power and probably will be for at least two more weeks”

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

By contrast both women spoke about the resilience and helping of one another. “I’ve heard so many stories of people having to evacuate themselves, and then helping others evacuate. Everybody was running,” Richter said. “Then the resilience when help finally came and their ability to save the homes they did. The community is really coming together. People are camped out in trailers at Home Depot and WalMart. These big stores have opened the places up. I went to Home Depot a few days ago and they were cooking hamburgers for everybody.

Meanwhile the North Star Fire continues to expand. Acreage burned as of the morning of August 27 is 170,000 acres.

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