By Kelly Davis

Indian tribes cope with widespread devastation

Southern California fires this month have charred more than one-third of the region's tribal lands, destroying 230 reservation homes, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Barona reservation saw all of its 6,296 acres burned by the Cedar fire, and remnants of the Paradise fire are still burning on the impoverished La Jolla reservation, located on the northern fringe of the Cleveland National Forest.

Still, the impact of the fire on the tribes has drawn little media attention. They'd like to have their stories told, said Susan Jensen, spokeswoman with the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), but at the same time are reticent to let the media into their world. "I think it's a really tough time for them," said Jensen, "and to let anyone they don't know in-it's tough."

With phones and power knocked out, tribal leaders have been tough to reach. Saturday on the San Pasqual reservation near Escondido-the hardest hit by the fire with a total of 71 homes damaged or destroyed and all 1,380 acres of reservation land burned-Roland Escarcega Ballon, the tribe's water technician, politely declined to answer most of CityBeat's questions, though he couldn't help but point to an empty space on a hilltop where his house once stood. The fire that ripped through his community was, as he put it, "insane."

The impact of the fires on tribal lands and communities is unprecedented, said Marilyn Delgado, director of the Governor's Office on Indian Affairs. Delgado's department was created July 25 of this year, she said, but will be disbanded when the new leadership takes over. Still, its presence couldn't have come at a more necessary time. On Monday, Delgado sat in on a conference call with tribal leaders and state social-service and emergency-aid officials to help coordinate outreach efforts. On Nov. 4, she attended a meeting at the Pechanga casino-where 1,000 evacuees from five tribes have taken refuge-that gave tribal leaders a chance to talk to representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and state and local representatives.

"We've had a lot of issues coming in," she said. "A lot of Indian people who've lost their homes don't have insurance. [There's also] environmental cleanup and erosion problems to take care of."

Delgado said the goal was to address these issues while maintaining tribal sovereignty. "Let's make sure if the state's going to assist all tribes with [environmental cleanup], that we're not, in the same sense, imposing some standard on a tribe that they'd normally not be subject to."

BIA spokeswoman Miriam Morrill said so-called Burn Area Emergency Response teams are evaluating the impacts of the fire on tribal lands and coming up with immediate and long-term plans to address issues like damaged, still-standing trees, flood mitigation and tainted water supplies-tribes such as San Pasqual, for example, get much of their water supply from wells.

Some tribes have their own environmental specialists, said Morrill, while others will have to rely on FEMA money and their own financial resources to restore their land. "Some areas are going to struggle hard, and some have a lot of money and are going to try to pitch in and help out."

CNIGA's Jensen said her agency has set up a fund to assist tribes that have limited resources and provide them with immediate support. "Funding from FEMA takes quite a long time," she said.

While it's expected that wealthier tribes-those with successful casinos-who were not impacted by the fires will contribute to the CNIGA fund, Delgado said that just because a tribe has a casino doesn't mean that money will cover all rehabilitation costs. "San Pasqual has a casino, yet all of their homes burned in the fire," she said. "Economically, they're hurting right now and their only source of economic development had been shut down." The Valley View Casino on the San Pasqual reservation sustained some damage in the fire but was expected to re-open this week. "Barona, they're a very well-established gaming tribe, yet they've got extreme devastation," said Delgado. According to a BIA report, Barona lost 35 homes, their daycare center and a portion of their elementary school.

So far there have been no reports on whether any tribal members perished in the fire. An unconfirmed report noted two fatalities on San Pasqual land, though Morrill said tribes have expressed a desire to keep that information private. People also died on Barona lands.

"A lot of tribes are in very remote areas," said Delgado. "Because of the poverty some of these reservations are in, they don't have vehicles to leave. It was a real big effort to make sure people got evacuated safely and had a way out."

CNIGA has set up a fund to assist Indian tribes impacted by the fire:The Disaster Relief Fund for Tribes
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