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Teaming up to suppress fire threat

ALPINE, Calif. - It's been a while since the Viejas and Ewiiaapaayp had cleared up some of the brush surrounding their reservations in eastern San Diego County. In some areas, it's been 80 years.

Before the Spanish arrived in the 1700s, the brush - fuel source for wildfires that now surround their reservations and other populated areas - was carefully burned to protect their communities. But that husbandry has been lacking.

Enter the masticators: modified tractors able to snap 4-inch wood limbs in seconds and a fire suppression team.

Beginning in May, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay and the Ewiiaapaayp (pronounced WEE-ah-pie) Indians and the National Forest Service launched coordinated efforts to eradicate 97 acres of the dense brush using modern methods.

While the methods may have changed, the reason behind the clearing hasn't.

''We have to protect our tribal members, fellow human beings and our life and property,'' said Alan Barrett, a Viejas tribal council member.

Tribal and Forest Service crews have been cutting down shrubs and laying down fire breaks along Interstate 8, the southernmost east-west expressway in California and an area where fire-prone chaparral and other species germinate. The masticator, which Barrett described as a ''giant lawnmower on steroids,'' travels on tracks, treading gently on desirable species and sacred areas.

Portions of the land selected for firebreaks belong to the Ewiiaapaayp, federal government and private owners. The Viejas reservation is centered among them.

The endeavor was the result of years of encouragement to create firebreaks surrounding Indian country in southeast California, Barrett said. Talks with the Forest Service were drawn out and environmentalists inhibited success. American Indians, including Barrett, testified before Congress in support of the Tribal Forest Protection Act. Made law in 2004, it still lacked the funding mechanism and remained idle in the area.

''What we did is assist the greater area to make it happen.''

The teamwork marked the first time that land in southern California has been cleared under the act.

''Tribes from this region, including ours, have thousands of years' worth of experience in fire prevention and management, and we are proud to participate in this effort to protect our communities for generations to come,'' said Ewiiaapaayp Tribal Chairman Robert Pinto in a release.

About 1,300 people in reservations and the unincorporated city of Alpine will benefit from the firebreaks. Beginning in 2001, four major fires have threatened or struck the area. The Horse Fire of 2006 burned nearly 17,000 acres near Indian country.

''Although this is the first-time effort of its kind in our area, we hope to continue our work with tribes to create additional firebreaks and enhance the protection for East County homes, businesses and families,'' said Tom Gillette, district ranger for the Cleveland National Forest, in the release.

The Greater Alpine Fire Safe Council, a working group made up of local governments, including the tribes, facilitated the partnership, Forest Service officials said.

''They know where the oldest brush is and the closest,'' said Forest Service spokesman Anabele Cornejo.