Tribes say better fire protection for their land is needed

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. -- As they cataloged the widespread damage to several Indian reservations in last week's fires, tribal officials spoke to firefighters and federal officials Tuesday about the need for a better plan to protect their lands.

While praising tribal firefighters, state forestry department units and others, Johnny Hernandez, a leader with the Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueno Mission Indians, said tribes and the state need to communicate better and the state needs to put a higher priority on fighting reservation fires.

"I'm really worried about four to five days from now, when we get another Santa Ana," Hernandez said.

With numerous isolated reservations that have limited road access, San Diego County tribes have long felt particularly vulnerable.

"The first three days, we were fending for ourselves," said La Jolla tribal Chairman Tracy Nelson, his voice breaking, at a gathering sponsored by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Tribal Hall of the Rincon reservation.

The Poomacha fire, which began Oct. 23 as a structure fire on the La Jolla reservation, burned 8,679 acres there and destroyed 59 homes and other buildings. In all, 92% of the reservation burned, Nelson said.

The tribe, he said, put a priority on making sure its older members were evacuated.

"It's incredible when you're up against something like this, something you're powerless against. . . . " Nelson said. "What is really amazing is that everybody got out alive."

The Poomacha fire also burned 3,585 acres on the Rincon reservation, 5,360 acres on the Pauma, 2,118 on the Pala and six acres on the San Pasqual reservation, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The fire destroyed a church on the Rincon reservation.

With 18 federally recognized Indian tribes, San Diego County has more reservations than any other county in the country. They cover about 124,000 acres, or 4% of the county's area.

James Fletcher, superintendent of the Riverside district of the BIA, said the agency has authorized about $600,000 in emergency grants of $1,000 per Indian family affected by the fires.

He said specialists are examining fire victims for health problems, including breathing difficulties. They will also assess the loss of historic structures and start a reseeding effort, he said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development will replace reservation HUD housing that was destroyed. The government also is trying to develop assistance for reservation homeowners who had inadequate insurance.

Officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency are meeting with tribal leaders to discuss temporary housing for those whose homes burned, Fletcher said.

"This is where the healing process is going to start, to bring our reservations to where they were, maybe better," he told several hundred persons who packed the tribal hall half a mile from the Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort.

Indian casinos inside and outside the county served as evacuation sites for some tribes.

In Riverside County, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians in Temecula provided hotel rooms for about 250 members of the La Jolla, Mesa Grande, Santa Ysabel, Pala and Pauma bands.

Some tribes were able to evacuate elders to an Apache reservation in Arizona.

"What Indian people do is we come together in times of tragedy," said Mark Romero, a leader with the Mesa Grande tribe.

Tribal leaders said that some parts of their reservations are still without electricity, phone service and drinkable water. They said the fire had also caused deeper damage.

The Pauma tribe, for instance, had planned to take its elders on a trip to a region on the west side of Palomar Mountain that holds spiritual significance for the tribe, particularly its older members.

"We can't do that now, it's gone, just gone," said Stephen Peters, the tribe's vice chairman.

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