Chumash, other firefighters battle California blazes

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Firefighter officials in California - a state well known for its wildfires - have declared 2008's fire season an extremely active one so far.

Among those officials is Juan Mendez, crew superintendent for the Sycuan Fire Department Golden Eagles Interagency Hotshot Crew in San Diego, and Battalion Chief J.P. Savala from the Chumash Tribe in Santa Ynez.

According to a statewide fire overview from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, on June 20 a thunderstorm system moved over the state's wildlands and started more than 2,000 lightning-sparked fires.

Since that time, well over 1 million acres have burned and nearly 13,000 fire prevention personnel have been involved in attending to these wildfires.

Of the 287 fire crews that have been mobilized to fight these California wildfires, the BIA has supplied its share of firefighting forces. Among them stood the Zuni, Fort Apache, Navajo and Geronimo IHCs and the Golden Eagles Hotshots.

''This wildland fire season has begun like no other since the summer of 2000,'' Mendez said. ''To date, we have worked 32 days and we've had six days off.''

Six days out of 32 may not seem horrible, but a typical day for a wildfire firefighting crew is between 12 and 16 hours. Daily regimens for IHC crews consist of traversing many miles in rough terrain chopping down trees and clearing tough brush to create a barrier for oncoming fires.

In addition, these firefighters carry heavy equipment while covered in fire-retardant clothing that is more than uncomfortably hot. The strain on these crews is extensive.

The main firefighting performed by the Golden Eagles Hotshots crew took place in Los Padres National Forest in conjunction with other adjoining agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service; Cal Fire; and the San Diego, Atascadero, Glendale, Oceanside, San Marcos, Vista, Escondido, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange and Kern county fire departments.

One tribe that was affected in particular was the Chumash, whose reservation lies just outside of Los Padres National Forest. Their original tribal land is extensive: it once covered present-day Malibu, Santa Barbara and Monterey and Kern counties. Covering more than 7,000 square miles, much of this land is susceptible to wildfires.

The Chumash are well-known artisans. Sacred caves and cave drawings exist today and are well-tended by the tribe and its fire department. With the onslaught of this year's wildfires, much of this tribal artistry was in danger.

Savala dispersed cultural resource specialists to assist the Golden Eagles Hotshots with the protection of Chumash reservation lands and sacred sites. The crews did their best, with only minor damage occurring to these sites.

He spoke about unexpected discoveries in the areas surrounding the sacred sites.

''When a lot of the brush burned through, artifacts were exposed near the cave drawings. We have found mortar and pestles, arrowheads, and one guy found an obsidian atlatl dart.''

The atlatl is a precursor to the bow and arrow in which a small arrow-shaped spear was thrown with the aid of a staff. The Chumash tribe was excited by the find, which demonstrates open trade long before the existence of the bow and arrow since obsidian does not exist in the area.

Although much of the fire burned near Chumash sacred sites, cave drawings and tribal land remained bruised but not beaten.

As of July 28, 98 percent of the California wildfires had been contained. Local and other firefighters remained to fight the uncontained 2 percent. The Golden Eagles Hotshots returned home exhausted and well-worn.

Mendez is proud of his men.

''This is hazardous work and the men have done an extraordinary job staying safe. They were exhausted after this last tour and are enjoying some well-deserved days off.''

These tours are dangerous, and Mendez knows how the families of his crew await their safe return.

''All our friends and family feel relief when we make it home safe.''