Tribal volunteers tackle blaze

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. -- One by one, they returned from the fire lines and steered their clunkers into a gravel parking lot. The dust from their wheels rose into the Pauma Valley and blended into the smoke billowing from three mountaintops behind them.

One had two chain saws in the bed of a rusty pickup truck, another a portable generator and a shovel in the back of an SUV. One walked with a limp; another was covered in tattoos. Several had long, black braids swaying behind their helmets or from under the bandannas they had wrapped around their heads.

After the Poomacha fire started here Tuesday morning, the 10 members of the La Jolla Indian Reservation Volunteer Fire Department found themselves surrounded by flames and stranded without electricity or running water.

They decided to stay and fight. By Thursday, they had assembled a ragtag, 52-person army -- unpaid and, largely, untrained. It wasn’t a bucket brigade, but it was close. Most, but not all, were La Jolla Indians. Some had firefighting experience, but many did not.

One worked as a chef at a nearby country club. The reservation’s 65-year-old environmental officer, who typically coordinates trash pickup, among other tasks, was placed in charge of security. A young construction worker stood at a checkpoint to guard against looters.

One coordinated the maps, tracking the active fires and plotting a defense. Another ordered walkie-talkies and had them shipped overnight to her hotel room in nearby Rincon.

Someone brought sandwiches.

Someone brought bulldozers.

By Thursday evening, the Poomacha fire had destroyed 50 houses here -- about a third of the homes on the tiny, isolated reservation in northern San Diego County, southeast of Temecula. It’s a forgotten pocket of the county, where it’s far easier to find ostrich jerky than a latte.

Among the losses were believed to be irreplaceable artifacts, including handmade, fire-burned ceramic bowls that were used to carry water long before the reservation for the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians was established here by Ulysses S. Grant in 1875.

The crew members had ashes caked in their ears. Their leader had slept only nine hours from Monday through Thursday afternoon.

But even though they lost the 50th house Thursday morning after a flare-up, they were winning. No one had been hurt. No one had been killed. And unless conditions changed markedly, they were unlikely to lose any more houses, said their leader, 36-year-old Joseph Ruise, the youngest of seven siblings raised on the reservation and the acting chief of the volunteer fire department.

“Since the resources are so thin, we developed our own,” he said Thursday. “A lot of us just decided to stay.”

He spoke, a map unfurled on the table in front of him, inside the reservation’s tribal hall. The pre-fab building, in the center of the gravel lot off California 76, is typically used for tribal government and reservation meetings -- the education committee, the water committee. It had been turned into a fire station, mess hall and, for several crew members, bunk house. A handwritten sign on the wall listed the newly appointed commanders: Wally, Bro, Tracy, Cat.

The fire erupted on the reservation at 3 a.m. Tuesday. At the time, the volunteer fire department had been summoned to fight the Witch fire and was trying to cut a fire break into a patch of woods south of the reservation. The firefighters sped toward the first call, outside a La Jolla home in the Poomacha Valley. The first firefighter to reach the scene radioed to the others: “5 acres. Rapid rate of spread.”

Within 15 minutes, the fire grew to 500 acres and was spreading in every direction at once.

Tribal leaders had already evacuated many members as a precaution, and tribal firefighters, along with 40 state firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, were able to roust everyone else and get them out of town. The firefighters then raced away from the flames on California 76.

The trucks were going 60 mph, and “the fire was passing us,” said Calvin Rodriguez, 30, part of the initial firefighting crew. “I thought I was taking a one-way ticket to hell. The visibility went from 20 feet to the other side of the windshield.”

As soon as they could, the volunteers returned to the reservation. Others soon followed. They couldn’t stay away.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Ryan Adams, 20, the construction worker currently deputized to staff a roadblock. “It feels good.”

The reservation has by no means been abandoned by the outside world; there were state firefighting crews on the reservation Thursday, as well as sheriff’s deputies assisting on the roads. Aircraft fought one nasty patch of flames a mile or so south.

“We’re getting help from the outside,” Ruise said. “But it’s not enough -- which is understandable considering what’s going on. So we had to do more. It seemed like a pretty simple decision. You’ve gotta take care of your own. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.”

With the Santa Ana winds that fueled the initial fires ebbing, evacuation requests were lifted in many communities, and there was a sense that the firestorm was winding to a close. But in certain areas -- particularly in this corner of San Diego County -- that’s nowhere close to true.

Nearby, state firefighting crews mounted a defense to save several hundred homes atop Palomar Mountain from the Witch fire. “There seems to be this sense that it’s over,” said Dave Sossaman, the police chief on the nearby Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. “We’re still in crisis here.”