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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

In Oregon, Karuk tribal citizen Troy Hockaday Sr. watched helplessly last fall as a raging wildfire leveled the homes of five of his family members, swallowed acres of forest where his people hunt deer, elk and black bear, and killed a longtime friend.

Now, less than a year later, the tribal councilman is watching in horror as flames encroach on the parched lands of other Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest that already are struggling to preserve traditional hunting and fishing practices amid historic drought. At least two tribes have declared states of emergency amid the devastation.

Nearly 70 active wildfires have destroyed homes and burned through about 1,500 square miles in mostly western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. California, Oregon and Washington are all hard hit.

The National Interagency Fire Center reports large, complex fires are burning throughout several geographic areas, threatening  to exhaust firefighting resources. At least 80 percent of the country's wildland firefighting crews and management teams are already deployed.

The fire center Wednesday declared Wildland Fire Preparedness is at Level 5, the highest level of fire activity. The Level 5 declaration makes more federal resources available for firefighting efforts. 

In California, a fire was rapidly expanding Wednesday in the Feather River Canyon, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Paradise, the foothill town largely destroyed by a 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people.

The largest fire in the U.S. on Wednesday was burning in southern Oregon. The lightning-caused Bootleg fire was encroaching on the traditional territory of the Klamath Tribes, which still have treaty rights to hunt and fish on the land, and sending huge, churning plumes of smoke into the sky visible for miles.

The Chuwea Creek Fire on the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation in Washington has grown to 32,000 acres and is 20 percent contained. That’s according to a Northwest Incident Management Team status report issued Thursday around 4 p.m PT.

The team expects the fire to grow as high temperatures, low relative humidity and gusty winds are predicted across the area.

Lightning sparked the fire on Monday evening. It spread quickly through tall grass, sagebrush and timber. Nespelem, a town of 200 on the reservation, was evacuated that night.

The team said, “11 structures in Nespelem were lost during the initial phase of the fire, three primary residences and seven outbuildings.” An unknown number of livestock and other animals died or were injured and had to be put down.

The management team early Thursday said 200 firefighters are working to contain the Chuwea Creek Fire. They have deployed two fire engines, 14 bulldozers, 4 water tenders, 3 helicopters, and 1 fixed-wing aircraft.

"Additional resources have been ordered and will be assigned to the fire as regional priorities allow. Air resources will be heavily utilized again today," stated the management team Thursday morning.

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The promise of added resources follow an update by Wednesday’s incident commander, Bobby Shindelar, who reported, “with the current weather there are simply not enough resources to protect residences and other structures and contain the amount of fire perimeter. Additional engines and crews are needed along with line supervisors to manage them. Additional heavy equipment is needed as well.”

Kathy Moses of the tribes’ Mt. Tolman Fire Agency told Q13 News the wildfire is moving towards timber resources that are important to the tribe.

Chuwea Creek Fire is one of several fires in north central Washington, where hundreds of people are under level 1 and 2 evacuation orders. At level 1, people are advised to get ready and be alert to danger. At level 2, people may leave voluntarily or make plans and pack to be ready to go at a moment’s notice as significant danger is in their area.

Level 3 mandatory evacuations were in effect due to a fire in Chelan County in central Washington. It was threatening 1,500 homes along with orchards and a power station, authorities said. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency Tuesday authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for the Chuwea Creek Fire.

COLVILLE FIRE The Colville Reservation is the latest victim of massive wildfires in Indian country. (File Photo courtesy of Washington Interagency Incident Management Team)

Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Chairman Andy Joseph Jr., said in a prepared statement Tuesday, “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,” Joseph 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.

On Tuesday the tribe closed the reservation to the public and to industrial activities. It placed non-essential staff on administrative leave.

The governor of Washington on Wednesday declared a drought emergency. The Washington state Department of Ecology reports a “historically dry spring and summer, followed by a record-breaking heat wave, have affected water supplies across Washington. (Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett are excluded from the declaration).

The ecology department said on its website that Washington had its fourth-driest March through April on record, which led to a drought advisory for 29 counties. It stayed dry through June. Then came triple-digit temperatures that smashed all-time records and rapidly worsened drought conditions.

Climate change has made the American West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Scientists have long warned that extreme conditions will continue as the world warms.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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