Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Updated July 15 to show increased size of fire, greater containment 

At the request of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the state of Washington, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Tuesday issued a disaster declaration for a wildfire in north central Washington. The declaration authorizes the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs.

The Chuweah Creek Fire was sparked by lightning Monday evening. The first reports of fire came at 7:15 p.m. local time southeast of Nespelem, a town of 200 on the reservation.

Driven by wind and fueled with tall grass, sagebrush and timber, the fire spread quickly. Nespelem was evacuated Monday night. It remains under evacuation notice, said Colville Tribal Chairman Andrew "Badger" Joseph. 

"Police and people were coming by the houses asking people to get up and go," Joseph told The Spokesman-Review. "They can't make you do that, but a lot of people evacuated – our convalescent seniors, our nursing home was evacuated."

Seven homes, four of them vacant, burned. Seven outbuildings were also lost, but that number likely has grown, Joseph said. The fire killed an unknown number of livestock, and some animals were severely injured and had to be euthanized. Many more are missing.

On Wednesday, the fire was 23.4 square miles with zero containment. By. Thursday, the fire had grown to 34 square miles. Containment increased from zero to 20 percent.

The decision to issue the emergency declaration, FEMA said in a prepared statement, was based on the risk of the fire becoming a major disaster. In addition to the threats to Nespelem, "the fire was also threatening roads, tribal government buildings, a tribal prison, parks and recreation facilities, farms, utilities, the local watershed, streams and fish spawning sites, as well as locations of cultural significance. These homes and facilities are on tribal land and are under tribal jurisdiction.”

The FEMA funding can be used to set up field camps, equipment, tools, supplies and materials, and mobilization and demobilization. Additional funds will be available for cleanup and fire prevention.

“The fire danger is extreme, with record high ERC (Energy Release Component) levels and a heat advisory through 8 p.m. Wednesday with temperatures forecast to be as high as 105 degrees," Joseph said. "There is also a fire weather watch projected through Thursday afternoon, with wind gusts of up to 25 miles per hour adding to the fire danger.

“Our priority is always the safety of all people on the Colville Reservation, and we will also protect property to the best of our ability,” he said.

“Our hearts and thoughts go out to the people already impacted by these fires. We thank those coming onto our land to assist us in fighting these fires, and we appreciate the donations and offers for help that are already coming in. The need for action to protect our climate, and to mitigate the effects of climate change, becomes clearer with each passing year and each round of devastating fires,” Joseph said.

Strong winds on Wednesday could fan the flames of several other wildfires in the area, where some 2,500 homes are under evacuation orders or alerts. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning in effect for much of eastern Washington beginning Wednesday afternoon and ending Thursday evening.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency on Wednesday because of poor water supply conditions and hot, dry conditions that have plagued the region.

Extreme conditions like these are often from a combination of unusual random, short-term and natural weather patterns heightened by long-term, human-caused climate change. Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms.

The Confederated Tribes has closed the reservation to industrial activities and to the general public. Paved state and county roads remain open.

A shelter has been set up, as well as housing for elders.

More than 9,429 descendants of 12 aboriginal tribes of Indians are enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of the Colville.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.