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Raging wildfires threaten American Indian tribal lands

Smoke from wildfire filling the air
Smoke fills the air near the Bootleg fire Tuesday near Sprague River, Ore.
(Nathan Howard / Associated Press)

Fierce wildfires in the Northwest are threatening American Indian tribal lands that already are struggling to conserve water and preserve traditional hunting grounds in the face of a Western drought.

Blazes in Oregon and Washington were among some 60 large, active wildfires that have destroyed homes and burned through close to 1 million acres in a dozen mostly Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In north-central Washington, hundreds of people in the town of Nespelem on the Colville Indian Agency were ordered to leave because of “imminent and life-threatening” danger as the largest of five wildfires caused by dozens of lightning strikes Monday night tore through grass, sagebrush and timber.

Seven homes burned, but four were vacant and the entire town evacuated safely before the fire arrived, said Andrew Joseph Jr., chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which includes more than 9,000 descendants of a dozen tribes.

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Monte Piatote and his wife grabbed their pets and managed to flee but watched the fire burn the home where he’d lived since he was a child.

“I told my wife, I told her, ‘Watch.’ Then boom, there it was,” Piatote told KREM-TV.

The fast-moving River fire near Yosemite National Park swells to more than 9,500 acres Tuesday as firefighters try to protect communities in the area.

The confederation declared a state of emergency Tuesday and said the reservation was closed to the public and to industrial activity. The declaration said weather forecasts called for possible triple-digit temperatures and 25-mph winds Wednesday into Thursday that could drive the flames.

In Oregon, the lightning-sparked Bootleg fire that had destroyed at least 20 homes was raging through lands near the California border Wednesday. At least 2,000 homes were threatened by the fire.

Mark Enty, a spokesman for Northwest Incident Management Team 10, which is working to contain the fire, said that, since he arrived in the area last week, the Bootleg fire had doubled in size each day.

“That’s sort of like having a new fire every day,” Enty said.

Keeping the lights on is getting harder as the American West grows hotter, drier and more flammable.

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The blaze had spread over 315 square miles, an area larger than New York City. Firefighters for the third day in a row had to back off occasionally for their safety, and the “weather isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future,” said Rob Allen, an incident commander.

Crews were facing above-normal temperatures and bone-dry humidity coupled with afternoon gusts that were expected to create dangerous fire conditions through Wednesday, officials said. Members of the Oregon National Guard were expected to be deployed to help with road closures and traffic control in fire-affected areas.

The fire disrupted three transmission lines that provide electricity to California, and the state’s power grid operator asked for voluntary power conservation Monday. The California Independent System Operator said Tuesday that the grid was stable.

The fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest was burning through a region where the Klamath Tribes — comprising three distinct Indigenous peoples — have lived for millennia.

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“There is definitely extensive damage to the forest where we have our treaty rights,” said Don Gentry, the chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council in Chiloquin, Ore., about 25 miles west of the Bootleg fire.

“I am sure we have lost a number of deer to the fire,” he said. “We are definitely concerned. I know there are cultural resource areas and sensitive areas that are likely the fire is going through.”

The Klamath Tribes have been impacted by wildfires before, including one that burned 23 square miles in southern Oregon last September. That fire damaged land where many of the Klamath tribal members hunt, fish and gather. The fire also burned the tribes’ cemetery and at least one tribal member’s house, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in September.

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The tribes are struggling with drought-caused problems. In past decades, they have fought to preserve minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake to preserve two species of federally endangered sucker fish that are central to their culture and heritage. Farmers draw much of their irrigation water from the same lake that’s critical to the fish. Even before the fire erupted, extreme drought in southern Oregon had reduced water flows to historic lows.

The dryness of the vegetation, primed by both long-term drought and shorter-term heat waves, is making it easy for fires to ignite and even easier for them to spread.

In California, progress was reported on the state’s largest fire so far this year. The Beckwourth complex, a combined pair of lighting-ignited blazes, was almost 50% contained after blackening more than 145 square miles near the Nevada state line.

Damage was still being tallied in the small rural community of Doyle, Calif., where flames swept in during the weekend and destroyed several homes, including Beverly Houdyshell’s.

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The 79-year-old said Tuesday that she’s too old and too poor to rebuild and isn’t sure what her future holds.

“I can’t just buy another house, boom, like that,” Houdyshell said. “I had insurance. I haven’t heard from them yet. I called them but I haven’t heard nothing.”

A fire that began Sunday in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park grew to nearly 15 square miles, but containment increased to 15%. Four unspecified buildings were destroyed.


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