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SF Gate: San Diego Indians hit hard by wildfires/25,000 acres burned -- 700 lose homes

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  • Karen McCormick
    125 homes destroyed, 2000 evacuated from ancestral lands. ... This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SF Gate. The original article can be
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 1, 2003
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      125 homes destroyed, 2000 evacuated from ancestral lands.
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      This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SF Gate.
      The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
      http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/11/01/MNGG82OASE1.DTL

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      Saturday, November 1, 2003 (SF Chronicle)
      San Diego Indians hit hard by wildfires/25,000 acres burned -- 700 lose homes
      Ryan Kim, Chronicle Staff Writer


      San Diego -- Almost half of San Diego County's native Indians have lost
      their homes or have been forced to evacuate by a pair of wildfires that
      ravaged much of the rural interior of the county this week.
      The fires have devastated the Indian tribes that have made their homes in
      the county's dusty canyons for centuries. More than 2,500 of the 6,000
      residents of reservations in San Diego County have been forced from their
      homes, said James Fletcher, superintendent for the local Bureau of Indian
      Affairs branch. Fletcher said 11 of the county's 18 Indian reservations
      either have been burned or faced mandatory evacuations, and more than 125
      houses have been destroyed, leaving about 700 people homeless.
      "This had had a tremendous effect," Fletcher said. "We're talking about
      more than 25,000 acres of tribal land that has gone up in smoke. It's just
      burned up."
      More than 2,000 Indian evacuees, mostly from the Paradise fire in northern
      San Diego County, have been housed at the Pechanga Casino and Resort in
      neighboring Riverside County. Many left with a barely more than some
      clothes and shoes. Pechanga tribal officials opened their doors when they
      saw the fire sweep through five reservations to the south. "We have a
      strong cultural affiliation to the tribes near us," said Mark Macarro,
      tribal chairman of the Pechanga Indian Tribe. "The escape route was near
      us, so we ended up with a lot of people."
      Macarro said Southern California's wildfires historically have hit Indian
      tribes particularly hard because their reservations are usually in some of
      the region's most vulnerable areas.
      "Many of the Indian reservations were established on land that people back
      then thought was worthless -- dry land without water that's hard to get
      to," he said. "It ends up being the most susceptible to wildland fires."
      There are more Indian reservations in San Diego County than in any other
      county in the United States. The 18 small reservations stretch from the
      Riverside County line in the north down through the central corridor of
      the county to Jamul, southeast of the city of San Diego.
      The Barona reservation, for instance, occupies a shallow valley, with
      modest houses along Barona Road, the main artery. The center of the
      reservation features an incongruous giant casino, made to look like a
      large hay barn with an old mill waterwheel. A 397-room hotel rises in the
      back, next to an 18-hole golf course.
      Edward Brown, an 86-year-old Kumeyaay Indian living on the Barona Indian
      Reservation, was one of the unlucky ones. Early Sunday morning, he
      suddenly awoke to find his house surrounded by flames. He was able to save
      himself, but his house and car were another story.
      "I looked out and I saw flames as far as I could see," said Brown. "I
      tried to put the fires out with my hose, but forget it. It was too late."
      Brown's was one of the 39 homes lost when the fast-moving Cedar Fire swept
      down the canyon from nearby Ramona. The tribe's brand-new casino and hotel
      were spared, largely because the golf course acted as a fire break. Two
      buildings at the reservation charter school were destroyed, and the hotel
      suffered more than $1.5 million damage, largely from guests who trashed
      their rooms, angry that they weren't allowed to leave during the fire.
      The guests, all unhurt, were permitted to leave later that morning after
      the fire had blown past. Barona chairman Clifford LaChappa said the fire
      was devastating, but revenue from the hotel and casino ensured they would
      be able to rebuild. He said the burned-out residents would be housed in
      the tribe's hotel until they can rebuild their homes.
      "This is just another thing for the tribes to deal with," he said. "Some
      tribes have solvency and can rebuild, and that's what we'll do."
      But not all the tribes are flush with casino cash. Only four of the
      affected reservations have casino resorts. None of those casinos burned.
      Many of the reservations still struggle to provide housing, basic
      amenities and improvements and are likely to face difficulty handling the
      aftermath of the fire, said Brandie Taylor, vice chairwoman of Santa
      Ysabel Band of Biegueno Indians The Santa Ysabel tribe, the county's
      largest with 950 members, signed a gaming compact last month for a modest
      casino. But for now, the effects of the fire may strain their finances,
      she said.
      "The other tribes have economic development, but we don't yet, so we rely
      on grants and revenue-sharing with the other tribes," said Taylor. "So it
      will take longer for us to bounce back from this than the big gaming
      tribes."
      The cash-strapped tribes also have had trouble fighting fires. While they
      have mutual-aid arrangements with local outside fire agencies, their own
      departments often are undermanned, said Fletcher.
      "Most of the reservations have small fire departments," he said. "They try
      to prepare as best as they can, and when we have fires like this, it's
      hard to deal with it."
      The fires have had more than just a physical effect on the Indians, said
      Dr. Laura Williams, an American Indian family physical and the public
      officer for the state Indian Health Program. The tribes have a cultural
      and spiritual relationship with the ground they call home, which makes the
      fires and their displacement even more heartbreaking, she said.
      "It's a disaster for all the people," said Williams. "The impact is that
      over thousands of years, these families have inhabited these lands, and
      these people are directly connected to the land. It's more than just a
      house."
      E-mail Ryan Kim at rkim@...
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      Copyright 2003 SF Chronicle
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