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Colville Reservation Struggles Back From Worst Wildfires in Recorded History

Colville Reservation struggles back after summer wildfires that destroyed 600 square miles, from sacred sites to homes.
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Sacred sites, homes, wildlife and timber were just a few of the casualties of summer 2015, which produced the largest fires in recorded history on the Colville Reservation in Washington State.

“Many families have gathered in specific places for generations,” said Cody Desautel, natural resource director on the Colville Reservation. “Many of those areas are now lost.”

He spoke of the loss of cultural plants and traditional gathering places related to the fire, saying it is hard to put a dollar amount on the damage. The fires were among several that ravaged the Northwest over the summer, including tribal lands.

RELATED: Wildfires Scorching Northwest, Including Tribal Lands

The two principal Colville fires, Tunk Block Fire and North Star Fire, burned a combined total of 259,911 acres on the reservation. They burned an additional 131,174 acres adjacent to the reservation for a total of more than 384,000 acres. The perimeter distance of those two fires was 600 miles. It took 1,434 firefighters to put out the conflagration. While that is typical for fires of this size, numerous other fires meant fewer available firefighters.

RELATED: Wildfires Scorch More Than 500 Square Miles on Reservations in Northwest

By comparison, the Carlton Complex of fires in 2014, the largest in the Washington history at the time, burned 256,108 acres.

RELATED: Washington and Oregon Declare Fire Emergencies, Overwhelmed by 20+ Blazes

Twelve tribal homes burned in the Tunk Block fire, and one abandoned cabin burned in the North Star fire, said Kathy Moses a spokesperson for the Mount Tolman Fire Center. An additional 20 non-tribal houses and mobile homes within the reservation also burned, said emergency planner Randy August. This reduced the housing stock, making it difficult for some people to find even temporary homes. It also damaged many tribal roads, opening the reservation up to floods during winter rains.

“We use heavy-duty plastic culverts because they’re a lot easier to install with a long life expectancy, but fires burned a bunch of those, and we expect road damage over the winter if we get anything remotely approaching a normal rain,” August said. “The runoff from damaged areas is going to be intense.”

And that’s not all, August added.

“We lost well over 200 miles of damaged or destroyed grazing fences. My estimate is 236 miles,” he said. “These are just on tribal or tribally owned land. Material and labor will run in the range of $15,000 to $20,000 per mile in this rolling terrain. My assessment to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) will be in the range of $2.5 to $4 million. That’s as close as we can pin it down right now.”

A presidential disaster declaration allows tribes to recoup many out-of pocket costs from the federal government.

“We can recover 75 percent,” August explained. “The amount spent is well over one million dollars. The tribal fire department is charged with saving homes. Four fire engines from surrounding departments were contracted. Emergency generators were brought to Paschal Indian School. The water system for the town of Nespelem required a temporary generator. These and others are costs that can be recovered.”

The number of culturally sensitive areas damaged or destroyed has not been revealed. Moses did say that upper portions of Moses Mountain, named for Chief Moses, survived the fires. Elders have told that Chief Moses would ride to near the top of the mountain with some of his people to do ceremonial prayers to protect the reservation, and that’s why it is held sacred.

More tangible is the effect on timber harvest, which for decades was a major income producer on the Colville Reservation. In 2006 it provided $70 million in revenue, the highest income source on the reservation. By 2012 that amount had dropped substantially, partly because of falling lumber prices. Timber revenue typically feeds between 20 and 25 percent of the tribal budget, Desautel said, making the loss of trees even more keenly felt. Logging has increased greatly as the tribes try to salvage as many burned trees as possible, and much of the wood coming to mills has been blackened from the fires.

“It’s going to be years before the timber comes back,” said Moses. “It’s to the point that future generations will feel the loss of timber.”

Fire management officer Ike Cawston said the blazes highlighted changes in the environment and altered the landscape.

“This was a challenging season, a tragic season,” he said. “There’s a lot of change I see in the landscape. I see in the future either we address change in the changing environment or we’re going to continue to suffer severe losses.”

There is also hope too, Cawston said.

“Thinning forest stands will always continue, but in the same breath I see hopefully a lot of other things too,” he said. “There are a lot of different things that impede our ability to conduct management practices. I would like to see that we address every facet, from initial attack to prescribed fires to fuels mitigation, and that all different functions associated with our programs be given equal weight.”

Wildlife populations were also affected, to the extent that hunting seasons for deer, elk and moose were closed in the burned areas of the two fires. Randy Friedlander, Director of Fish and Game for the tribes, explained that the combination of animals killed by the fires, including deer, elk, and moose, plus animals that were moved away from the fire area, plus the devastation of the understory vegetation that animals need to survive, were reasons for the hunting closures. Predator hunting remains open.

“Normally we wouldn’t shut down a hunting season, but this is the largest fire in history,” Friedlander said. “If over 250,000 acres of forage burns up, it’s devastating.”

Either way, the animals’ future is uncertain.

“We’re anticipating we’ll see some starvation this winter,” Friedlander said. “If the winter is mild, as predicted, it’s good for wildlife, but on the other hand it could mean another horrible fire season. We also need the snowpack to get the water reserves back.”

On a more positive note, fire is known to regenerate understory vegetation, so there’s a chance that the undergrowth will return in even greater volume than before, providing even more food for grazing wildlife. That remains to be seen, but is one of the few possible positives from the fires of 2015.