TEMECULA, Calif. - A stubborn summer wild fire has been threatening the Pechanga Indian Reservation, one of a hundred burning across Indian country. Officials determined the blaze was human-caused but it is unknown if it was deliberate or accidental.
It started early on the afternoon of July 29 and continued through the following week. By Aug. 9 it had burned more than 12,000 acres and was 90 percent contained with full containment expected by mid-week.
One sign the danger was lessening was that the Red Cross announced it was closing its evacuation center.
Four firefighters were seriously injured in the blaze and two were listed in serious condition in an area hospital. The other two were released. There were 29 other people, mostly firefighters, who sustained minor injuries with the most prevalent problem being smoke-inhalation.
The fire started on the reservation and but spread into the nearby Cleveland National Forest. It stayed well clear of tribal offices and the Pechanga's casino.
It forced the evacuation and closure of a campground and had threatened stands of the rare big cone Douglas fir and canyon live oak as well as rare and endangered animals such as the California spotted owl.
"Luckily all that has been lost in the fire in terms of structural damage have been a few out-buildings like sheds, but luckily no houses or businesses have been lost," said Joanne Evans public information office for the California Department of Forestry's Riverside office.
Evans said the department took "utmost care," being aware of American Indian archeological and sacred sites on Pechanga and neighboring lands and has been working with the tribe.
Investigation is continuing and officers have not ruled out arson and say that they have no leads or suspects at this time.
"There's a lot of smoke, but everyone here seems to be safe and sound," says a tribal worker who wouldn't give her name because of Pechanga policy.
Calls to Chairman Mark Macarro were not returned and he has not allowed other council members to speak on the matter.
In addition to the forested area, most of the land burned is thick with brush and chapparal. Evans said Forestry has already begun vegetation rehabilitation efforts in the north part of the burn area to prevent erosion and soil loss.
In traditional times, ancestors of the Pechanga Tribe regularly burned the land to clear areas for several reasons.
These burns were not catastrophic because they were frequent, thus making for a much lower fuel load. These low-intensity fires rarely damaged bigger trees and had the additional benefit of clearing ground for them to propagate. Much of California has a Mediterranean climate that means significant winter rains where vegetation is allowed to grow are countered by bone-dry, low humidity summers, officials explained. This combination creates hazardous summer fire conditions.
Since the coming of white settlers management strategies have changed. Fire suppression became the order of the day. Evans confirms that the area in and around the Pechanga had not been burned in more than 100 years. The result is a high fuel load that burns hot enough to incinerate mature trees and devastate wild animal habitats.