California firefighters survey damage and check for hot spots in the Coffey Park subdivision in Santa Rosa, California. Photo: Marko Kokic for The American Red Cross
Environment | National

Tribes open their doors in response to devastating wildfires in northern California

Tribes step up in times of disaster

By Kevin Abourezk

As wildfires threatened lives and homes in northern California, one tribe raced by boat to stand beside firefighters and opened its doors to those displaced by the flames.

A Red Cross official thanked the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians on Tuesday for helping those affected by wildfires that have killed 41 people and destroyed 5,700 homes and businesses.

Chele Rider, a division disaster state relations director for the American Red Cross, said the the tribe allowed the Red Cross to use its Twin Pine Casino Event Center as a primary shelter for displaced fire victims. Well, most of the time, she joked.

“It’s a fantastic partnership,” Rider said during a breakout session at the National Congress of American Indians annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “The tribes are always very generous with us, until it’s time for the concert to start, then they say, ‘Go somewhere else.’”

Several Pomo tribal citizens were evacuated but none lost their homes to wildfires, Rider said.

Other California tribes also welcomed people displaced by the wildfires, including the Graton Rancheria, which closed its casino to guests to make room for fire victims and has pledged $1 million for support efforts. The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians opened its event center and camping facilities to evacuees.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians Steps Up

In recent weeks, tribes across the nation have felt the impact of natural disasters — hurricanes, floods and fires. Indian Country has stepped up to help those in need.

"When one tribe is impacted, we all are impacted," Jackie Pata, the executive director of NCAI, said on Monday as the organization opened its 74th annual convention.

Some tribes, however, have struggled to get adequate federal support after being stricken by natural disasters.

A citizen of the United Houma Nation criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday for being unwilling to help his tribe after it was impacted by hurricanes due to its lack of federal recognition. The tribe is recognized by the state of Louisiana.

As a Congressionally-chartered, non-governmental institution, Red Cross can serve any community, regardless of its federal status, Rider said. The lack of a federal disaster declaration doesn’t prevent Red Cross officials from helping tribes in need, either, she noted.

“The declaration doesn’t change anything,” she said. “We do the same thing from start to finish that we normally do.”

The United Pomo National Council has established a fire disaster relief fund for the Pomo tribes in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco. To help, send checks payable to the United Pomo National Council to: 7601 N. State St., Redwood Valley, CA 95470, in care of Ghazal Mahdavian.