Wildfires affect California tribes in myriad ways: some more visible than others

In my most recent article for PBS Southern California, KCET News, “California tribes support each other and seek inclusion in State wildfire response,” I relate how different tribes across Northern and Southern California address ongoing wildfire emergencies that impact tribal members living on tribal trust lands (reservations and rancherias).

Flames were racing towards the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians’ rancheria lands. Homeowners tapped into fire hydrants to wet down their rooftops; elders demanded to stay put. Tribal staff frantically coordinated evacuation and relief efforts, posting updates on social media and reaching out to neighboring tribal bands.

Big Valley was in the third day of their annual intertribal tule festival when the Ranch and River fires began, two blazes that would eventually merge into the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, California’s largest wildfire on record at the time.

“People were having trouble breathing on the rancheria,” recounted Sarah Ryan, Environmental Protection Director for the Big Valley Band. “We have a lot of people with asthma and respiratory illnesses. We went to the local stores and tried to get some air purifiers, but everybody was sold out.”

A neighboring tribe, the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians, helped Big Valley acquire seventy air purifiers, sent in “from all over California for us,” related Ryan.

Coping with the before, during, and aftermath of a major wildfire is traumatic for everyone involved. I have personally been evacuated multiple times, and almost trapped by fires suddenly flaring up within a mile of each other along Highway 20 in Lake County when I was returning from a Winnemen Wintu salmon ceremony. Yet because my #vanlife home is portable, I don’t have to worry about packing a go-bag, or when it’s safe to return to a homestead: I just start up my van (which contains everything I need and more) and drive somewhere else.

For much of 2021, I’ve been researching and reporting on how wildfires impact Native California tribes: from the need for more cultural (prescribed) burns on tribal lands to how tribes help each other out in response to catastrophic wildfires. The more I delve into this topic, the more complexities I uncover. For example: because tribal nations are a unique entity, and most municipalities and agencies haven’t developed strong collaborative relationships with neighboring tribes, when disasters strike, tribes are often left out of crucial lines of communication or emergency response decisions.

The exclusion of tribes from communications or response networks is not necessarily a deliberate or malicious act: more often, it is due to oversight or negligence. Yet the impacts of exclusionary practices are terrible, no matter what the reasoning.

Not all of the devastation on reservation lands is caused by the flames themselves. Local, state, and federal agencies’ lack of familiarity with Native lands has often led to interference with tribal evacuation efforts and unnecessary destruction of culturally sensitive habitat.

“We were evacuating elders to the coast so they wouldn’t be breathing the air,” recounted Ryan, “and we were trying to track who was being evacuated, and who was staying put. Law enforcement guarding the roads into the rancheria wouldn’t let tribal staff in [to check on, or help evacuate tribal members], because they were using officers from somewhere else, and those officers didn’t know anybody local. That was a huge stressor. We couldn’t get our water plant facilities staff onto the rancheria; or when they went out to get supplies, they couldn’t get back in. It was horrible.”

In my work as a stakeholder engagement specialist, I pay a great deal of attention of who gets a seat at the decision-making table, and who doesn’t. I observe who is included on email listservs or communication threads versus who is omitted; and who gets unlimited amounts of time to speak, versus who is forced to summarize everything in only two or three minutes (a common practice amongst State agencies during public comment periods).

Climate change impacts indigenous communities first and worst. (I’ve been lecturing on this for over a decade.) Native tribes: whether they are based in Alaska where arctic permafrost is thawing or coastal community lands are eroding, or in California where wildfires are raging annually, tend to be on the frontlines of climate change.

Wildfire incidence in California has increased 500% since 1972, and it is not uncommon for over fifty percent of a given county’s landmass to burn in the space of one generation — a reality for Ventura, Monterrey, Lake and Glenn Counties. Tribal nations are more likely than other ethnic communities to be located in remote wildland areas, and when Native Americans are hit with a wildfire, they experience the most long-lasting impacts. Still, tribes respond to wildfire disasters in ways that benefit other tribes and non-Indigenous communities far beyond their reservation borders.

Despite all of the frustrating, negative realities faced by tribes, one of the main points in my article is positive: when tribes have sufficient funding, and are included in emergency response networks, everyone benefits.

When the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fires impacted a dozen Pomo tribes in Northern California, the Coyote Band of Pomo Indians opened up their gymnasium to serve as a shelter for everyone in the community to come for free meals, water and a smoke-free environment. The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians did the same for communities in Lake County, providing their casino as an official, government-recognized Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the area. This enabled all tribes in the area to be included in official disaster response networks in ways they hadn’t been before.

With the recent winter rains in California, the 2021 wildfire season is largely over – in one sense. My next article for PBS will address additional challenges faced by tribes in coping with catastrophic fires, including significant restoration, soils testing, runoff containment, and ongoing fire-hardening of forest habitats that have been neglected for far too long.

Too many California tribes are overburdened and underserved when it comes to environmental issues caused by climate change. We all have a part to play in turning this around, beginning with familiarizing ourselves with tribes and tribal communities within a 100-mile radius of our workplaces and homes. If you don’t already know the names, locations, languages, and cultural and environmental programs of the nearest federally-recognized tribes and non-federally recognized tribes, or how to connect with tribes in your area, I can help! Contact me here.

One thought on “Wildfires affect California tribes in myriad ways: some more visible than others

  1. Thanks for sharing your article with me. My association with you always leads to new learnings, of all different kinds! 💕cc

    Sent from my iPad


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