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Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest

Smoke fills the air near the Bootleg Fire, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, near Sprague River, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard

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.

After last year’s Slater Fire near Happy Camp, California, “We got spread out all over the place,” said Hockaday, who said about 200 homes, including many belonging to Karuk citizens, were burned. “Some people have already sold their property and given up. But the tribe as a whole, we’re trying to build ourselves back and be strong.”

“It’s hard to watch the devastation of what a fire can do nowadays. It’s just crazy—and we just started July,” he added.

Blazes in Oregon, California, and Washington state were among nearly 70 active wildfires that have destroyed homes and burned through about 1,562 square miles (4,047 square kilometers) in a dozen mostly Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
Beverly Houdyshell, 79, who’s home burned down, sits at her granddaughter’s house in Doyle, Calif. on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Houdyshell, said Tuesday that she’s too old and too poor to rebuild and isn’t sure what her future holds. “What chance do I have to build another house, to have another home?” Houdyshell said. “No chance at all.” Damage was still being tallied in the rural community of Doyle, Calif., where flames swept in during the weekend and destroyed several homes, including Houdyshell’s. Credit: AP Photo/Haven Daley, File

Extremely dry conditions and heat waves tied to climate change have swept the region, making wildfires harder to fight. 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.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center moved the Pacific Northwest region up to the highest alert level Wednesday—rare for this time of year—as dry, gusty winds were expected in parts of Oregon and new fires popped up.

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. State fire officials said the new blaze, which erupted late Tuesday afternoon, covered 1.8 square miles (4.8 square kilometers). By evening, the blaze was moving away from populated areas but there was zero containment of the Dixie Fire and two tiny Butte County communities were warned to be ready to evacuate.

Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
Operations Section Chief Bert Thayer examines a map of the Bootleg Fire, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Chiloquin, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard

The largest fire in the U.S. on Wednesday was burning in southern Oregon, to the northeast of the wildfire that ravaged Hockaday’s tribal community less than a year ago. 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 blaze, which has burned an area larger than New York City, has destroyed about 20 homes and 2,000 more are under evacuation, but much of it was burning in remote areas of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. On Wednesday, the fire was 5% contained.

But even when the flames don’t enter densely populated areas, the impact of the increasingly intense fires around the U.S. West is felt directly by Native American tribes, who have managed the land for millennia.

Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
Veterinarian Tawnia Shaw, with The Happy Pet Vet team, examines horses that had been left during a Level 3 evacuation during the Bootleg Fire, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, near Sprague River, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard

“We couldn’t do ceremonies because of the fire and our hunting grounds, we could not hunt there,” said Hockaday of last year’s fire. “About 40 square miles (103 square kilometers) of our original territory is closed to us right now.”

Members of the Klamath Tribes in Chiloquin, Oregon, are concerned the Bootleg Fire will affect their ancestral territory as well.

“There is definitely extensive damage to the forest where we have our treaty rights. I am sure we have lost a number of deer in the fire,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council in Chiloquin, Oregon.

Gentry said although the active fire was 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the tribe’s administrative headquarters, the council declared a state of emergency Wednesday because of its erratic behavior and rapid growth.

“With the severity of the fire, we’re really concerned about where the fire might go from here, so we have a lot of concern about the future,” he said Wednesday.

Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
Firefighter Gary Robinson, with Pacific Habitat and Fire, eats dinner by headlamp after a 12-hour shift fighting the Bootleg Fire, late Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Bly, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard

The Klamath Tribes have been affected by wildfires before, including one that burned 23 square miles (60 square kilometers) in southern Oregon last September. That fire damaged land where many of Klamath tribal members hunt, fish and gather. The fire also burned the tribes’ cemetery and at least one tribal member’s house.

This year’s blaze is another blow for the tribe, which has already seen water levels fall so low in a local lake that federally endangered fish species central to their culture and heritage could not spawn this spring. Farmers who also draw much of their irrigation water from the same lake also got no irrigation this summer as extreme drought reduced flows to historic lows.

Farther north, in north-central Washington, hundreds of people in the town of Nespelem on Colville tribal land were ordered to leave because of “imminent and life-threatening” danger as the largest of five wildfires caused by dozens of lightning strikes Monday night tore through grass, sagebrush and timber.

  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Fire from the Bootleg Fire glows in the distance on Tuesday morning, July, 13, 2021 near Bly, Ore. An army of firefighters is working in hot, dry and windy weather to contain fires chewing through wilderness and burning homes across drought-stricken Western states. A high-pressure system that created the second intense heat wave of the year is weakening Tuesday, but temperatures are forecast to remain above normal on the lines of more than 60 active large fires. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    The Bootleg Fire smoke plume grows over a single tree on Monday, July, 12, 2021 near Bly, Ore. An army of firefighters is working in hot, dry and windy weather to contain fires chewing through wilderness and burning homes across drought-stricken Western states. A high-pressure system that created the second intense heat wave of the year is weakening Tuesday, but temperatures are forecast to remain above normal on the lines of more than 60 active large fires. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Smoke fills the air near the Bootleg Fire, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, near Sprague River, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Beverly Houdyshell, 79, who’s home burned down sits at her granddaughter’s house in Doyle, Calif. on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Houdyshell, said Tuesday that she’s too old and too poor to rebuild and isn’t sure what her future holds. “What chance do I have to build another house, to have another home?” Houdyshell said. “No chance at all.” Damage was still being tallied in the rural community of Doyle, Calif., where flames swept in during the weekend and destroyed several homes, including Houdyshell’s. Credit: AP Photo/Haven Daley, File
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Kim Berge, left, holds her kitten River for an examination by veterinarian Tawnia Shaw after evacuating to a Red Cross shelter near the Bootleg Fire on Tuesday, July, 13, 2021 in Klamath Falls, Ore. A high-pressure system that created the second intense heat wave of the year is weakening Tuesday, but temperatures are forecast to remain above normal on the lines of more than 60 active large fires. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Art Garcia and his dog Shiro rest after evacuating to a Red Cross shelter near the Bootleg Fire on Tuesday, July, 13, 2021 in Klamath Falls, Ore. A high-pressure system that created the second intense heat wave of the year is weakening Tuesday, but temperatures are forecast to remain above normal on the lines of more than 60 active large fires. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Firefighters from Oregon and other nationwide agencies meet at Chiloquin High School before heading toward the Bootleg Fire, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Chiloquin, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Tim McCarley talks about their evacuation from the Bootleg Fire while at a Red Cross center on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Klamath Falls, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard
  • Fires threaten Indigenous lands in desiccated Northwest
    Dee McCarley hugs her cat Bunny, whom she took with her while evacuating from the Bootleg Fire, while at a Red Cross center on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Klamath Falls, Ore. Credit: AP Photo/Nathan Howard

Seven homes burned, but four were vacant, and the entire town evacuated safely before the fire arrived, said Andrew Joseph Jr., chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, which includes more than 9,000 descendants of a dozen tribes.

That fire grew Wednesday but so did containment and it was now 20% surrounded.

The tribes declared a state of emergency Tuesday and said the reservation was closed to the public and to industrial activity.

Another fire in Chelan County in central Washington was threatening 1,500 homes along with orchards and a power station, authorities said. Mandatory evacuations were in effect.

The Sheriff’s Office said detectives and county and federal fire investigators served a search warrant at a home believed to be the place where the fire started but the news release didn’t provide any other details.


Wildfires torch homes, land across 10 states in US West


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