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Tribes band together to fill gaps in wildfire aid

SAN FRANCISCO - As the wildfires that scorched stretches of southern California were tamed and residents began returning to devastated neighborhoods in late October, a dozen tribes continued to rely on their main source of relief: each other.

The 35 wildfires that roared through seven counties in seven days before simmering revealed long-standing discrepancies in state and federal aid that some are comparing to Hurricane Katrina, as isolated Native and Latino communities were left to mostly fend for themselves during the fires.

''The response has been lackluster at best,'' said Sonny Skyhawk, a Rosebud Sioux who lives in Pasadena, on Oct. 26. ''What happened in Katrina is almost the same as what's happening on the reservations.''

On one of the hardest-hit reservations, La Jolla in northern San Diego County, about 50 evacuees returned to battle the Poomacha Fire. Some state firefighting crews assisted, but by Oct. 25 a third of the homes were destroyed - 50 houses.

''I've never in my life seen such brave men. They were tired, hungry, dirty and still joking around even though many had lost their homes,'' said Paula Stigler, tribal liaison for the San Diego Foundation. ''The resources became so stretched that La Jolla, being in such a remote area, it was very difficult to get to them. They still need help.''

Help arrived as fires continued to smolder atop the La Jolla reservation Oct. 30, eight days after they began. In a meeting on the Rincon reservation between tribes and state and federal agencies, including the IHS, Federal Emergency Management Agency and BIA, officials promised further assistance was on the way.

The BIA already has 211 firefighters on the ground, half the department's crew, said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Carl Artman. An erosion team is assessing prevention strategies and housing agencies are working to provide modular homes from Texas and Arkansas, he said. City and county agencies are working on water and sewage issues, he said.

''We're not going to let issues of lack of people stand in the way,'' said Artman, who added that the BIA has already provided $578,000 in general assistance funds for individuals and is prepared to provide more.

''The federal, state and local governments are all working together to help out there, and from the tribal perspective what you saw is tribes coming together and acting as a unified community,'' he said. ''While there may be a lot of debates between tribes at any given time, at these times of crisis this is an Indian country community.''

On the first days of the fire, tribes across southern California formed a web of aid stretching from the Morongo reservation 40 miles east of Los Angeles down to the southeastern Viejas reservation.

''It's unfortunate that reservations are usually the last to receive relief,'' said Rose Salgado, a Soboba tribal councilman. ''Because that's a known fact, tribes immediately rally together to provide for other tribes in time of need.''

That has happened every time wildfires have threatened the region's isolated reservations in unincorporated rural areas beyond city-funded fire districts, said Rincon spokesman Nikki Symington.

Tribes have ''typically been left to fight fires with their own volunteer resources,'' she said.

Since mid-October, 130 homes have been lost on reservation land in one of the most destructive series of firestorms in recent state history, scorching 517,450 acres, destroying 3,087 structures and killing seven people, according to the state's Office of Emergency Services.

Fires burned more than 30,000 acres of reservation land, said Jim Fletcher, superintendent for the BIA in southern California. The La Jolla and Rincon reservations suffered the most damage, including the loss of Rincon's chapel, built in the late 1800s. Others affected included the Barona, Inaja-Cosmit, Mesa Grande, Pala, Pauma-Yuima, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel and Viejas.

A half-million people across southern California were evacuated - the largest number in state history.

As fire conditions improved, evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium were evacuated for the Chargers game Oct. 28. Rumors of deportations had frightened many Latino families away from the stadium, after reports that San Diego police arrested a Mexican family Oct. 24 for allegedly stealing food to resell. They were deported.

Fewer than 1,500 people remained in public shelters in the final week of October, down from more than 20,000.

Hundreds of Native evacuees remained on the reservations of other tribes, in hotels and shelters.

Viejas provided meals to evacuation centers and evacuees being housed at the Pechanga Resort, and opened its recreation center and its casino's buffet to firefighters, said spokesman Robert Scheid.

The Santa Ysabel gym has become a hub for donations, said Vice Chairman Brandie Taylor. Some Santa Ysabel evacuees are staying on the Soboba, Borrego and Pechanga reservations, but a majority have left to be housed at the Yavapai/Apache reservation in Verde Valley, Ariz.

''Their tribe will be taking care of lodging and food,'' Taylor said. ''We are extremely grateful.''

At Soboba's The Oaks Retreat lodge, in the foothills of the Hemet/San Jacinto Valley, about 60 Santa Ysabel, La Jolla and Rincon evacuees were being served hot meals and provided gift cards and services at its IHS clinic, said spokesman Mike Hiles.

At least a dozen housed there are children, and about half the people have lost their homes, Salgado said.

''For one couple, this is their second time in four years they have lost their home,'' she said.

The nonprofit organization Convoy of Hope brought a semi-truck loaded with supplies including food, water, clothing, toys and medicine collected at Soboba, delivering the items to hard-hit reservations in north San Diego County, Hiles said.

The La Jolla, Rincon, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual and Santa Ysabel reservations are still seeking food, clothing and medical supplies. Closures on highways 76 and 79 halted deliveries into the region, tribal administrators said in statements.

The state's Office of Emergency Services provided La Jolla with some generators and water.

Some gaming tribes whose lands were not devastated by the fires, including Morongo and San Manuel, have contributed hefty sums to relief efforts. San Manuel donated $1 million to relief organizations, designating a portion to tribes.

In recent years, gaming tribes, including the Rincon, have also used casino profits to build their own fire departments and water storage facilities, said Symington, the Rincon spokesman.

Most Indian casinos in San Diego County are safe havens built to withstand winds and wildfires ''and all that comes with them - electrical outage, phone disruption and shortages of food and water,'' she said.

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A Red Cross shelter set up in the Harrah's Rincon Resort and Casino is also seeking donations of food, clothing, diapers, toys and juice, Rincon Chairman Vernon Wright said in a statement.

The hotel had been closed to house 350 evacuees, firefighters and law enforcement officers.

Some evacuees have returned home, but nearly 100 people remained there at month's end - some non-tribal members whose nearby trailers or homes had burned, Wright said.

''We worry that these people will be essentially homeless, unless some agency or organization can be found to assist with relocation,'' he said.

How to help

Call, write or e-mail any of the following:

*The San Diego Foundation's Tribal Fire Relief and Recovery Fund: Call (619) 235-2300 or visit

*Evacuees at Soboba (note that donations being sent are for tribes affected by fires):

Dee Dee Ortiz-Banda

c/o The Oaks at Soboba

P.O. Box 487

San Jacinto, CA 92581

*The Indian Resource Center, a nonprofit in San Diego:

Indian Resource Center

4265 Fairmont Ave. #140

San Diego, CA 92105

*Santa Ysabel:

100 Schoolhouse Canyon Road

P.O. Box 130

Santa Ysabel, CA 92070

*La Jolla:

22000 Highway 76

Pauma Valley, CA 92061

*Mesa Grande:

P.O. Box 270

Santa Ysabel, CA 92070


P.O. Box 369

Pauma Valley, CA 92061

*The American Red Cross:

*Nikishna Polequaptewa's Reservation Fires Web site: