Heavy forest fires in the northwestern United States threaten Native American tribal lands that are already struggling to conserve water and preserve traditional hunting grounds in the face of drought.
The fires in Oregon and Washington are among some 60 large wildfires that have destroyed homes and burned nearly a million acres in a dozen states, mostly in the west, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In north-central Washington, hundreds of people in the Indian agency Colville’s town of Nespelem have been ordered to leave due to “imminent and deadly” danger as the largest of five fires of forest caused by dozens of lightning strikes Monday night devastated grass, sagebrush and wood.
Seven houses burned down but the entire town was safely evacuated 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, ‘Look’. So boom, it was there, ”Piatote told KREM-TV.
The confederation declared a state of emergency and declared the reserve closed. The statement said the weather forecast predicted triple-digit temperatures and winds of 25 mph 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. 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 the Bootleg Fire had doubled in size every day.
“It’s kind of like having a new fire every day,” Enty said.
The blaze had spread over 315 square miles, an area larger than New York City. For a third day, the firefighters have had to back off every now and then for safety reasons 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 has called for voluntary energy conservation. The independent California system operator said the network was stable and with the forecast for cooler temperatures, another call for conservation was not expected.
The Fremont-Winema National Forest fire 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 about 25 miles west of the Bootleg Fire. .
“I’m sure we lost a number of deer in the fire,” he said. “We are definitely worried. I know there are cultural resource areas and sensitive areas that the fire is likely to pass through. “
The Klamath tribes have already been affected by wildfires, including one that burned 23 square miles 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. 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 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.
A fire that started Sunday in the Sierra Nevada south of Yosemite National Park has reached nearly 15 square miles, but containment has risen to 15%. Four unspecified buildings were destroyed.
Scientists say climate change has made the west much hotter and drier, and 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 man-made climate change. However, special studies are needed to determine how much global warming is to blame, if any, for a single extreme weather event.