Northern California tribes face down massive wildfires

Some evacuees return home as clean-up begins and resources are stretched thin.

 

In the early hours of Monday morning, Robert Geary took a harrowing trip out of harm’s way as fires encroached on his home in Clearlake, California. “We followed the fire truck out in our van,” says Geary, a member of the Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians. “The fire was on both sides of the road, and we could feel the heat. We had our three youngest kids lying down under a blanket so they wouldn’t be so scared.” Two older children drove the family’s other vehicle, leading a small convoy of cars with elders. Geary and the other residents of Elem’s 13 homes made it out safely through the flames.

Geary says that the winds were so strong in his Lake County-area rancheria that the tops of electric poles sheared off, and wires and transformers struck the ground.

The Elem Colony is one of four tribes in Lake County, north of San Francisco, where fires have already burned more than 100,000 acres and killed more than 30 people. Many of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties’ 21 tribal communities are feeling the impact of the fires, as members are displaced and tribal governments struggle to provide needed services. At press time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Forestry and Wildland Fire Management office had not yet released its report on homes and land lost in the area.

A day after evacuating, Geary and some of his neighbors returned home to aid firefighters. They had to travel by boat, since the road into Clearlake was still blocked. “There weren’t very many firefighters on scene,” Geary says. “They are spread pretty thin.” Geary and his fellow tribal members helped the crew prevent the blaze from reaching the homes and roundhouses, which are used for ceremonial purposes. However, as Elem Environmental Director Karola Kennedy points out, the cemetery, which contained cultural resources, did suffer fire damage, as did some nearby resources located away from the rancheria boundary and parts of the Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine, a Superfund site that sits next to the colony.

People watch wildfires burn at Oaks Beach Park in Clearlake Oaks, California.
Kyle Bill

Kennedy says that the tribe, which currently doesn’t have a casino, is seeking help from other tribes and agencies, including Lake County Tribal Health and the Bureau of Indian Affairs because they lack the resources to support the 130 residents of the colony. Water and sewer systems are still operational.

The fire, though, also tapped into an ongoing two-decade-long rift which resulted in an attempted disenrollment of tribal members in the 200-member tribe. The conflict has left tribal members living in the colony distrustful of each other, a divide that has become evident as the community tries to recover. Community members worry the feud could make clean-up even more of a challenge.

“The chairman won’t authorize any resources to clean up,” says Geary. “So, we’re doing it ourselves. We’ve been clearing out greasy bushes that act like pine needles when set on fire.” The colony residents have also received help from neighboring tribes.

Elem Chairman Agustin Garcia was unavailable for comment, as he was evacuating his mother. Garcia, who does not live in the colony, had already fled his home in Napa.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the nearby Graton Rancheria, stressed that tribal leaders should “do whatever they can to take care of their tribal families.” Sarris’s community in Rohnert Park, which is about 10 miles south of Santa Rosa, isn’t directly in harm’s way. “We did close our tribal offices,” says Sarris, “but it’s because our own employees are evacuated from their homes.” Sarris says that his tribe’s casino has stopped taking guests in order to shelter people who are displaced. The 1,400-member tribe is also setting aside money to help tribal citizens who have lost, or will lose, their homes.

In Coyote Valley Rancheria, which is southwest of the Redwood Valley Fire perimeter, most of the area has the natural gas shut off, making it hard to care for displaced residents. Michael Hunter, chairman of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and head of the 16-tribe United Nations Pomo Council, says that his Mendocino County tribe has been busy ensuring his employees and tribal members have places to stay. As the closest rancheria to the town of Redwood Valley, Coyote Valley has also opened its event center and camping facilities to evacuees. “We’re providing food and other needs like toiletries and other things that people run out of, for all our neighbors,” Hunter says.

Middletown Rancheria Chairman Jose “Moke” Simon III, who is also a member of the Lake County Board of Supervisors, has been in this situation before. His community was devastated by the Valley Fire in 2015, and the rancheria is still recovering. Middletown’s casino resort is serving as an emergency shelter in partnership with the Red Cross and other organizations. Simon notes that they served more than 200 people over the past two days, and 130 slept at the casino Sunday night. Since many Clearlake residents returned home, less than 15 people remain at the facility. However, he says, “We’ll be here as long as it’s needed.”

“We’ve learned from the Valley Fire that recovery will be a long-term process,” says Simon, who is the first-ever Native person to be elected to a Lake County office. “It’s important to give back to our neighbors; we’re all in this together.”

Independent journalist Debra Utacia Krol is an enrolled member of the Xolon Salinan Tribe from the Central California Coast Ranges.  She is a contributor to High Country News and other publications, specializing in Native issues.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....