Wildfires in US West threaten parched Native American lands

BLY, Ore. — Fierce wildfires in the Pacific Northwest are threatening Native American lands where tribes already are struggling to conserve water and preserve traditional hunting grounds amid a historic drought in the U.S. West.

Blazes in Oregon and Washington state were among some 60 large, 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.

It comes as 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.

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.

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.

Monte Piatote and his wife grabbed their pets and managed to flee but watched flames burn the home where he had lived since he was a child.

“I told my wife, I told her, ‘Watch.’ Then boom, there it was,” Piatote told news station KREM-TV in Spokane, Washington.

The tribes declared a state of emergency Tuesday and said the reservation was closed to the public and to industrial activity. The declaration said weather forecasts called for possible triple-digit temperatures and 25-mph (40-kph) winds Wednesday into Thursday that could drive the flames.

In Oregon, the lightning-sparked Bootleg Fire that has destroyed at least 20 homes was raging through lands north of the California border Wednesday. At least 2,000 homes were threatened by flames.

Mark Enty, a spokesman for the Northwest Incident Management Team 10 working to contain the fire, said that since he arrived in the area last week, the blaze had doubled in size each day.

“That’s sort of like having a new fire every day,” Enty said.

After less extreme growth, the fire early Wednesday spanned nearly 332 square miles (860 square kilometers), an area larger than New York City.

As an intense heat wave abated, excessive-heat warnings expired but fire weather warnings were in place for the interior of Oregon, eastern Washington, part of Idaho and the northeast corner of California due to winds and very low humidity.

Members of the Oregon National Guard were expected to be deployed to help with road closures and traffic control in fire-affected areas.

The fire in the Fremont-Winema National Forest was burning through a region where the Klamath Tribes — comprising three distinct Indigenous people — have lived for millennia.

“There is definitely extensive damage to the forest where we have our treaty rights,” said Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council in Chiloquin, Oregon, which is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of the Bootleg Fire.

“I am sure we have lost a number of deer to the fire,” he said. “We are definitely concerned. I know there are cultural resource areas and sensitive areas that are likely the fire is going through.”

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 Klamath tribal members hunt, fish and gather. The fire also burned the tribes’ cemetery and at least one tribal member’s house, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported in September.

The tribes are struggling with drought-caused problems. In past decades, they have fought to preserve minimum water levels in Upper Klamath Lake to preserve two species of federally endangered sucker fish that are central to their culture and heritage. Farmers draw much of their irrigation water from the same lake that’s critical to the fish. Even before the fire erupted, extreme drought in southern Oregon had reduced water flows to historic lows.

In northeastern California, more progress was reported on the state’s largest fire so far this year. The Beckwourth Complex, a combined pair of lighting-ignited blazes, was 71% contained after blackening nearly 149 square miles (386 square kilometers) near the Nevada state line.

Damage was still being tallied in the small rural community of Doyle, California, where flames swept in during the weekend and destroyed several homes, including Beverly Houdyshell’s.

The 79-year-old 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.”

“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 nothing,” she added.

On the western side of the Sierra Nevada, a new fire erupted in the Feather River Canyon, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Paradise, the town largely destroyed by a 2018 wildfire that killed 85 people. State fire officials said the new blaze rapidly spread over nearly 2 square miles (5 square kilometers). There was zero containment of the Dixie Fire and two tiny Butte County communities were warned to be ready to evacuate.

A fire in the Sierra south of Yosemite National Park remained at just under 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) but containment increased to 21%.

Cline reported from Salem, Oregon. She is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Associated Press journalists Chris Grygiel in Seattle; Paul Davenport in Phoenix; Julie Walker in New York; Haven Daley in Doyle, California; and Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.