A fire swept across traditional Tubatulabal, Kawaiisu and Paiute lands this week, destroying more than 250 homes and buildings and killing two people.
The fire has affected Native and non-Native communities in this valley, where the Kern River’s journey from 14,505-foot Mount Whitney is interrupted by the Lake Isabella Dam, a valley plentiful with grasslands, chapparal, cactus, cottonwoods, elderberry, piñons, scrub oaks and willows.
The fire ripped through neighborhoods, leaving ash and the frames of homes and vehicles in its wake.
Ten communities were evacuated and at least 2,500 homes were threatened, a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles reported. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail was closed. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.
Relief efforts got under way immediately. Kernville Elementary School and St. Jude Catholic Church in Wofford Heights were providing shelter for evacuees and those displaced by the fire. Donation drop-off sites were designated in seven locations.
For those outside the affected communities who want to provide assistance, Tubatulabal Tribe council member Samantha Ridingredhorse recommends that donations be sent to the American Red Cross, Erskine Fire relief.
Authorities said the so-called Erskine Fire began on June 23 near Erskine Creek; the cause is under investigation. The fire, fueled by drought-parched brush and short grass, had consumed more than 46,000 acres by June 28. More than 1,700 firefighters brought the fire to 60 percent containment, with full containment expected by June 30, according to Inciweb, the fire information database.
“It’s been devastating,” said Patricia Henry, chairwoman of the Kern River Paiute Council. Her cousin was among those who lost their homes. “The winds were so bad, the fire just switched around. It’s amazing how it skipped over some homes and took others.”
Henry said the Nuui Cunni Cultural Center, which is operated by the Paiute council, has been open for people affected by the fire to eat and stay cool. She said semi-trucks have brought relief supplies to the area, as well as food for pets and hay for horses.
“Red Cross and Kern County Animal Rescue and many local organizations such as Bakersfield FFA, local restaurants and businesses [are] helping those who were affected by the fire,” Ridingredhorse reported on June 26. “My tribe is all safe. The fire was mostly south of us, but we have relatives who live in Isabella, Mt. Mesa, and Weldon. So far they are all safe.”
No Tubatulabal allotments had been evacuated as of June 28. But the tribe’s office and bead store were closed earlier in the week because of a power outage.
Ridingredhorse said the electrical utility Southern California Edison used generators to restore power in the communities of Onyx, South Lake and Weldon.
“The fire is still burning, and so many people lost their homes,” she reported.
The Erskine Fire is California’s largest this season; all told, 13 fires have consumed 66,616 acres to date in 2016. The fire is a reminder of the safety risks posed by California’s drought. Some 33.7 million people live in areas affected by drought in the Golden State, according to the USDA.
“California is in the [fifth] year of a severe, hot drought—the kind that is increasingly likely as the climate warms,” the Public Policy Council of California reports on its website. “The greatest vulnerabilities are in some low-income rural communities where wells are running dry; and in California’s wetlands, rivers, and forests, where the state’s iconic biodiversity is under extreme threat.”
Lake Isabella was at 27 percent of capacity on June 12, according to a kayaking website that tracks lake levels in California. Despite the drought, water continues to be diverted to Bakersfield, where the population swelled from 347,609 in 2010 to an estimated 373,640 in 2015, according to the U.S. Census.
The fire is also a reminder of the importance of improving access to water in rural areas.
The Tubatulabal Tribe is a signatory to one of 19 treaties signed by the United States and California’s indigenous nations in 1851–52; those treaties were never ratified, and numerous Tubatulabal families live on allotments supplied by wells or springs.
The Tubatulabal Tribe participates in regional and state water planning, and its government departments include a water board that works with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies “to improve safety and maintain water sources in our lands for residents.” The water board has secured grants for improvements at Tubatulabal’s Miranda and White Blanket rancherias, and conducts testing underground water level testing.
A Safe Drinking Water and Tribal Allotments Community Water Systems project at Miranda has been completed; a similar project is underway at White Blanket.
“A lot of us just keep the weeds cut down around our properties. That's all we can do,” Ridingredhorse reported. “I'm lucky because we have a fire hydrant next to my place and [my] uncle and niece's home on the Miranda yitiyamup Indian Rancheria. IHS put [it] in for us two years ago.”