In California preparations are underway for what is expected to be a difficult and dangerous fire season. According to Cal FIRE, in the first five months of this year they’ve responded to more than 2,000 fires, 50 percent more than the average. Staffing has been doubled following what officials have called the driest winter on record for the state and they say it’s only a matter of time before another catastrophic series of wildfires happens again.
Meanwhile, in the mountain hillsides of North San Diego, the Santa Ysabel Tribe is doing its part to prepare tribal members and the surrounding community for what could be in store. A Preparedness Fiesta was recently held on the Santa Ysabel Reservation in the tribe’s casino parking lot near Lake Henshaw near the towns of Santa Ysabel and Warner Springs. The lot was filled with emergency vendors, fire trucks and firemen, as well as local law enforcement from around North San Diego County. The timing could not be more appropriate as fire officials have said dry brush conditions from sparse rainfall have left the reservation susceptible to dangerous fire conditions.
Tribal Chairman Virgil Perez says the event was held because they want to be prepared and want not only tribal residents, but the surrounding community to be ready when disaster happens.
“As reservations go, we’ve always been isolated. We wanted to start having stronger relationships in being a community as a whole, when it comes to a disaster, it’s natural for people to come together, it’s part of the healing process,” Perez said.
The last week of May alone saw multiple fires in the Julian area—a 10-minute drive from the reservation—and some of them burning more than 2,000 acres. No lives were lost and no structures burned. Fire officials said firefighters recently stopped the spread of one in the Witch Creek area. The site where a massive 2007 wildfire started that left two people dead and more than 1,000 homes destroyed after it merged with a second fire. That disaster burned more than 1,500 acres on the reservation, moving the tribe to invest into more preparedness efforts.
To help tribal members be ready, the tribe conducts several yearly preparedness tasks for tribal members such as clearing defensible space around homes, conducting fuel breaks in historical areas where fires have burned before and fire education. Just over a year ago, the tribal fire department was established.
The smell of hamburgers and hot dogs grilling in the air helped draw more than a few tribal members, community members, and casino patrons to the event with curiosity.
“It’s good, I was surprised, because they gave my family resources to be prepared. At times, especially up here, you have to be able to stand on your own two feet and be able to fend for your family when help isn’t around,” tribal member Carolyn Stalcup said.
Stalcup, who lives on the reservation, brought her family to the event. She remembers what it was like during the 2007 disaster.
“We were okay, the anxiety was pretty high not knowing what was going to happen, I didn’t want to leave my home, my daughter was two at the time and the rest of my family had evacuated and they kept calling me, telling me to leave,” she recalled.
“In 2007, because of the wind, the way it blew that fire through our county, when there’s a fire in the area, we’re very concerned, the good thing about having our own fire department is we know that we have our own protection,” Perez said.
Participants in the Fiesta, included the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Red Cross, San Diego Humane Society and local fire departments. Those in attendance were able to take home smoke alarms, car seats, and information on fire prevention.
For the tribe though, they want to make this an annual event. Tribal officials said they continue to work on making new partnerships with organizations and hope that word spreads of the event leading to even more partnerships.
The reservation sits surrounded by several other mountain communities, and ranges from 3,200 feet to 5,700 feet in elevation with a land base of more than 50,000 acres on Hwy 79. The site of the Fiesta worked two-fold, not only in preparing those in attendance, but also familiarizing them with the location as tribal officials said the casino could be used as a hub for the community in a time of disaster.
“If a major disaster happened, we know it could help sustain us for a couple of days. Residents come here in the summer to cool off and during the winter it’s a place to warm up. If a disaster happened, this place would be used for residents to get their information and emergency supplies,” Perez said. “We’ve talked to the Red Cross about storing medical supplies and other things up here, we’ve been trying to prepare more and more just in case. And that’s what the idea about preparedness is, just in case it happens.”