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Reporters' roundtable: Wildfires bring 'danger level' air quality

Indian Country Today reporters' roundtable includes Joseph Orozco and Sue Matters.

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today

This forest fire season is being called the worst in history. All across the west, fires are burning and leaving behind not just scarred land, but smoke in cities such as San Francisco. For our reporter talkback today we have two long-time station managers at tribal radio stations. Sue Matters is with KWSO and she covers the Warm Springs Indian community in Oregon. And Joseph Orozco is the station manager for KIDE in Northern California and he covers the Hoopa Indian community. A few comments from Orozco:

“Well, the danger level is actually the air quality. We've seemed to have been able to hold a very good containment line near the reservation or between the fire and the actual Valley floor”

“We're not in an evacuation stage right now, but the air quality, you probably hear our filter running right now, we've got three HEPA filters in our studios and we keep them on constantly.”

“We’re holding pretty well. We are prepared to evacuate. Everybody's got bags, ready to go. And we have an evacuation plan in place and that will be announced when it gets activated. So we'll have it notified throughout the Valley, on the radio, billboards, people being called, elders being taken care.”

“The fire danger, yes, lingers with us. The air quality is getting close to the fire of 1999. That was really bad.”

“We could feel it in our throat, you know, you get that smoke out there. And that's the first thing you start feeling is that smoke. It's a little bit aggravating, but we're holding our own. I don't think we will evacuate.”

“That's the major hope right now, just get this smoke out of the air. That's what we want is a breath of fresh air.”

“We're just now finding the major Red Salmon fire right now, trying to keep that contained away from the Valley floor.”

“We're keeping in touch with our tribal members in all the burned out areas throughout California and probably elsewhere too.”

“We're concentrating on us right now. We're actually bringing in other tribal operations and municipalities to us right now. So we're stationed here.”

“Daily at 12 noon, the chairman has a COVID-19 report, which also includes the incident command team. Representatives will be here and they'll give updates on the fire and the smoke and the evacuation plans and the medical center.”

Sue Matters:

“So we've had a couple active fires since August 16th, that were lightning started. Of the two, the smaller one now is I think it's like 95% contained. And that at the time, did I think a raise evacuation notices to maybe level two. So that was closer to residences, but they got a containment line around that. And the other fire that's called the Lionshead Fire was even more rugged terrain up in the cascade mountains, no roads, really tough for firefighters to get to it. They've been working the Eastern edge of it, and there initially was a lot of air support, really fortunate to be able to get into that tough terrain like that.”

“Our winds are usually from the West, there was this extraordinary wind event in the Northwest on Monday, then Tuesday where winds shifted to be coming out of the Northeast and so it drove that Lionshead Fire toward the East Southeast and it went over the Pacific crest and into the other side of the mountains toward the Valley. So it has now met up with another fire called the Beachie Creek Fire.”

“We were fortunate in that we had an incident command team onsite already, since our fires have been going for a while. After this event on Monday and Tuesday with the winds there's, I don't know, 400 fires now burning in Oregon. It just spreads fire exponentially.”

“The whole State is pretty much experiencing fire and smoke issues. Monday and Tuesday were quite smoky and then it cleared out ‘cause the winds were blowing away from us toward the West. But because winds have now shifted back to our usual westerly flow and because there was a significant amount of back burning that firefighters have been doing to try and improve the fire line on the Eastern edge, we've got a lot of smoke and Ash today. It's really, really horrible air quality conditions right now, here and in a good part of the state.”

“In fact, we've not really experienced sunrise yet. It's just kind of dull, a sort of yellowish gray everywhere right now.”

“Well, the logistics for the firefighters certainly include COVID-19 precautions similar to everybody in the world right now. But then for us, as far as getting information out from the fire team, from the incident management folks, their public information officers have been incredible. We've probably had more access to information this fire than we've ever had in all the fires we've ever covered.”

“And so there are public information. People have been partnering with us. I've given them editor rights for our Facebook page. So they post to the fire page, we're getting information posted on our KWOS. We have a great photo album up on Facebook from since the fires started getting more problematic. So shots of all sorts.”

“We've really tried to push information out, both, you know, as news on our website and Facebook to kind of fill that gap where there maybe people are just feeling anxious. We try and put something in there, even if it's not an official fire update. Maybe it's some pictures of firefighters.”

“Firefighters are very much respected and people are always concerned and thankful for them. And so the community is pretty supportive in general of these folks that go out there and do this work.”

“This is just the next thing for us here in Warm Springs. We have chronic issues with our water infrastructure, both our water treatment, but especially our water distribution. And it really blew up last year where we had sort of a worst case scenario for a main line that went under a Creek that served the largest segment of our water system. And so made it through that, got a repair. And then this year it broke close to where that repair was made. We need millions and millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, maybe more to do the real repair. So until then we keep doing these band aid repairs because people need water.”

“For several months we were under a boil water order. Which was also, you know, when you think about COVID-19 and people's access to water, that's, you know, okay. When there's a loss of pressure in a water system, you must issue a boil notice and people have to use either water that they've boiled or bottled water for consumption and washing hands brushing, that kind of thing.”

Also in the newscast, Reporter Aliyah Chavez, has the latest COVID-19 information in Indian Country.

Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider. Based in Phoenix, Arizona. Talahongva enjoys hiking, reading and traveling to new places.

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