Nathan Howard / AP
BLY, Oregon – Heavy forest fires in the northwest threaten Native American tribal lands that are already struggling to conserve water and preserve traditional hunting grounds in the face of a western drought.
The fires in Oregon and Washington were among some 60 large active wildfires that destroyed homes and burned nearly one million acres (1,562 square miles, 4,047 square kilometers) in a dozen of Most western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In north-central Washington, hundreds of people in Colville Indian Agency’s town of Nespelem have been ordered to leave due to “imminent and fatal” danger as the largest of five fires of forest caused by dozens of lightning strikes Monday night tore grass, mugwort and wood.
Seven houses burned down, but four were vacant and the entire town was evacuated to safety before the blaze arrived, said Andrew Joseph Jr., president of the Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation which includes more than 9,000 descendants of a dozen tribes.
Monte Piatote and his wife grabbed their pets and managed to escape, but saw fire burn the house he had lived in since childhood.
“I said to my wife, I said to her, ‘Look. “Then boom, it was there,” said Piatote KREM-TV.
The confederation declared a state of emergency on Tuesday and declared the reserve closed to the public and industrial activity. The statement said the weather forecast predicted triple-digit temperatures and winds of 25 mph (40 km / h) from Wednesday to Thursday that could fuel the flames.
In Oregon, the lightning-triggered bootleg fire that destroyed at least 20 homes raged in lands near the California border on Wednesday. At least 2,000 homes were threatened by the fire.
Mark Enty, a spokesperson for Northwest Incident Management Team 10 working to contain the blaze, said that since arriving in the area last week, the Bootleg Fire has doubled in size every day.
“It’s kind of like having a new fire every day,” Enty said.
The fire had spread over 315 square miles (816 square kilometers), an area larger than New York City. For the third day in a row, firefighters have had to back down from time to time for their safety and “the weather is not going to change for the foreseeable future,” said Rob Allen, an incident commander.
Crews were facing above-normal temperatures and dry humidity, coupled with afternoon gusts that are expected to create dangerous fire conditions until Wednesday, officials said. Members of the Oregon National Guard were to be deployed to assist with road closures and traffic control in areas affected by the fires.
The fire disrupted three transmission lines that provide electricity to California, and the state’s power grid operator on Monday called for voluntary energy savings. The California Independent System Operator said on Tuesday the network was stable and that with forecasts of cooler temperatures, another call for conservation was not expected.
The fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest was burning in an area where the Klamath tribes – made up of three distinct indigenous peoples – have lived for millennia.
“There is certainly significant damage to the forest where we have our treaty rights,” said Don Gentry, president of the Klamath Tribal Council in Chiloquin, Ore., Which is located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the west of Bootleg Fire.
“I’m sure we lost a number of deer in the fire,” he said. “We are really worried. I know there are cultural resource areas and sensitive areas that are probably crossed by the fire.”
The Klamath tribes have already been affected by wildfires, including one that burned 60 square kilometers in southern Oregon last September. This fire damaged land where many members of the Klamath tribe hunt, fish and congregate. The fire also burned the tribal cemetery and the home of at least one tribal member, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in September.
The tribes are grappling with problems caused by the drought. Over the past decades, they have fought to preserve minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake in order to preserve two federally threatened suckerfish species that are central to their culture and heritage. Farmers get much of their irrigation water from the same lake which is essential for fish. Even before the fire broke out, an extreme drought in southern Oregon had reduced water flows to historic lows.
In California, progress has been reported on the state’s largest fire so far this year. The Beckwourth Complex, a combined pair of lightning-ignited fires, was nearly 50% contained after blacking out more than 145 square miles (375 square kilometers) near the Nevada state border.
The damage was still recorded in the small rural community of Doyle, Calif., Where the flames spread over the weekend and destroyed several homes, including that of Beverly Houdyshell.
The 79-year-old said on Tuesday that she was too old and too poor to rebuild and was not sure what her future had in store for her.
“How lucky do I have to build another house, to have another house?” Houdyshell said. “No chance at all.”
“I can’t just buy another house, boom like that. I had insurance. I haven’t heard from them yet. I called them but I haven’t heard anything.”
A fire that started Sunday in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park has reached nearly 39 square kilometers, but containment has risen to 15%. Four unspecified buildings were destroyed.
Scientists say climate change has made the West much hotter and drier, and they warn the weather will get wilder as the world warms. They say the extreme conditions are often due to a combination of unusually random, short-term and natural weather conditions, accentuated by long-term human-caused climate change. However, special studies are needed to determine how much global warming is to blame, if any, for a single extreme weather event.