Three days after Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency, fires still burn on the Spokane Reservation.
Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan, air quality control director for the Spokane Tribe, said that smoke in the air is at hazardous levels across the 159,000-acre reservation bounded on two sides by rivers – the Spokane and the Columbia.
Throughout history, those rivers have provided a natural protection against the wildfires that are part of this landscape in Northeastern Washington state.
But when a fire jumped the Spokane River in several places last week, devastation ensued as some of the last tribal member farmers and ranchers were burned out – in one case, 15 head of cattle caught fire, Abrahamson-Swan said. Many horses survived with burns, and elk and deer have also been caught in the flames.
Gov. Inslee’s proclamation covers 20 Eastern Washington counties, contained within those counties are the Spokane, Kalispel, Colville and Yakama reservations. The proclamation enables fire-affected jurisdictions to get state funds for firefighting and recovery.
Inslee noted that climate change – resulting in unusually hot, windy weather and contributing to a pine beetle infestation – has made the region ripe for wildfire. With a windstorm expected on Saturday, there is no end in sight.
Earlier this week, as the fire whipped by winds moved toward Wellpinit, the capital of the tribe, with electricity, phone and water lines down, residents turned to social media to let relatives and neighbors know of the danger they face. Many rushed to their homes to rescue pets and gather valuables.
Thirteen houses have been destroyed; as well as numerous outbuildings, barns and vehicles. More than 13,000 acres, nearly 10 percent of the reservation, have burned. And the main route to the nearby city of Spokane, a windy road on a steep hill, remains closed because guardrails are destroyed.
In Wellpinit, some offices are reopening despite the depletion of the town’s water system. Residents are using bottled water for drinking water for themselves and pets, and to flush their toilets. A medical professional came from the Portland office of the Indian Health Service to hand out inhalers and masks to tribal members complaining of respiratory problems, as result of the smoke in the air.
“Our newest buildings tend to suck more smoke in and the newest building is the day care. I monitored dangerous levels in the day care,” Abrahamson-Swan said. “With my equipment I realized while I was driving that I had equally dangerous levels in my car.”
On Thursday morning, she monitored the spread of the fire across a reclaimed Superfund Site at a historic uranium mine. Fire fighters, she said, are trained to fight fires, but are less informed about fighting fire in radiation polluted sites that if disturbed by fire or fire fighting could fill the air.
Just days before the Spokane Tribe’s usual Labor Day Pow Wow, those who remain in Wellpinit are grateful for the daily delivery of pallets of bottled water from the nearby Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Casino. Colville and Coeur D’Alene tribal fire fighters were among the first to arrive and are still fighting.
“When we are experiencing fires here on the Spokane Reservation or at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the tribes are not prepared to monitor the potential impact of radiation,” Abrahamson-Swan said. “There is no training and no resources. Our people are concerned about the fish and that air and we are not getting much information in terms of the increased monitoring we need.”