YAMAKA NATION, Wash.—Sadness, grief and heartache etch the faces of Yakama tribal members following the Feb. 12 wildfire that engulfed White Swan, a reservation community on the Yakama Nation in south central Washington.
It’s believed that embers from a chimney fire ignited surrounding sagebrush, quickly spread to a wood chip plant and then jumped to homes. The conflagration destroyed 20 homes. There were no fatalities.
Heavy winds, gusting at 69 mph fanned the fire complicating firefighters’ efforts to contain it. Water from hoses positioned toward the fire blew right past the flames. Power to the area was lost, briefly restored then lost all day Feb. 13, hampering clean up efforts. Fire officials have said this is the worst fire and devastation in the county.
“The fire with the high winds was like a horrific movie or a tragic documentary,” recalls Yakama tribal member David Northover.
Residents, mostly Yakama tribal members returned to the area Feb. 13 and saw foundations where some of the homes had been. Only charred remains and rubble littered the area in some places.
Yakama elder, Theresa Ashue’s home was a total loss. Ashue, partially disabled was rescued when an unidentified man came crashing through her front door yelling, “Get out, there’s a fire!” He found Ashue in her bedroom, grabbed and flung her over his shoulder and ran out.
He saved her life, but she lost her home and all her belongings—traditional clothing, and family heirlooms passed down through the ages.
Georgie Ike lived next to Ashue and her home, too, was a total loss. “There’s just a big pile of nothing,” she said, her voice breaking and her eyes welling with tears.
The fire left over 100 people homeless. It also contributed heavy smoke damage to nearby homes, and the winds ripped roofs apart, tribal spokesperson Mathew Tomaskin said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Some of the victims stayed at the Toppenish Days Inn. “I wanted to help out,” said hotel owner Peter Nam. He covered three days stay, and the Yakima Red Cross paid for extended stays for several families.
Michelle Lloyd, her partner Otis “OJ” Loggins, and their two young sons were among the hotel’s temporary residents. Loggins said initially he didn’t think much of the smoke, “until suddenly a bunch of flames and sparks began flying by.” Lloyd’s sister, Ashely Ike suffered shoulder burns from embers floating in the air as the family fled to safety.
Loggins stayed behind with neighbor John Ike and saved the house by watering it down. Both men operated an adjacent mechanic’s shop. Loggins finally joined Lloyd and his two sons at the hotel, but Ike refused to leave. “It finally took the local sheriff who had to handcuff him to make him leave,” Loggins said. The fire destroyed their shop.
Lloyd returned the next day and retrieved her sons’ full-beaded cradleboards, “even though they smelled like smoke.” She
found the beadwork her grandmother had handed down to her, and their tribal regalia.
But many families, not as fortunate lost precious heirlooms to the fire, like beaded buckskins made by their ancestors. “There’s only one design the elders did with their beadwork, buckskin work and baskets,” said tribal member Floraine Gardee, whose home suffered smoke damage. “Some stuff is just irreplaceable and that’s part of the past that is gone forever.”
Yakama Nation Land Enterprise sprang into action, setting up the Toppenish Armory as the disaster center. The building has stockpiled an overflow of clothing for all ages, toiletries, dishes, and more is expected. Larger furniture and appliance items are being stored for now.
Martinez “Tex” Charles, a soft-spoken man with a solemn look sorted through clothes at the Armory with his daughter. He was home with his children when the fire broke out. “I opened the front door and flames were right there.” They escaped through the back, but their pets weren’t so lucky. “The dog disappeared when he ran right into the fire.” Charles falls trees from spring through winter but doesn’t know how he will get to work this spring because among the charred remains are his three cars and a truck.
Victims are receiving counseling at the Armory, health checks for burns and smoke inhalation, and assistance with temporary housing. “Some of the people are staying with relatives so we’re trying to locate them to assist with any monetary help they may need,” Tomaskin said.
There’s been an outpouring of aid to the Yakama victims. “The tribe received some 270 calls the day after the fire,” said Yakama tribal administrator Colleen Reimer.
The Yakima Valley Red Cross helped displaced families find places to stay, and provided vouchers to purchase food and clothing. “I believe we reached everyone and are connecting people with caseworkers to assist them,” spokeswoman Stephanie Hakala said. While their agency has completed their operations with the tribe, they stand ready to help if anything else is needed, Hakala said.
Local motels and hotels continue to donate or extend stays for some who lost their homes. The Yakama Nation Housing Authority is facilitating the Emergency Housing Assistance Program, Authority director Preston Harrison said. “Through this emergency program we will provide up to $1,000 or provide a month or two of rent and up to $1,000 for move-in or costs or for motel or hotel costs up to $1,000.”
Tomaskin said the tribe’s first goal is to get families situated. “We don’t want any of them out in the streets.” Second is to renovate available housing units, set up the trailers for the short term, then get additional housing. “Of course, this isn’t going to get done overnight and will take months to finish.
The enormous loss of 20 homes could cost at least 6.5 million to rebuild, said Tomaskin. “We are coordinating with the Yakama Nation Housing Authority to see how we will proceed,” he said. Yakama’s Housing Authority is looking into insurance funding to rebuild the homes in their program.
Tribal officials met with the Portland, Ore. Bureau of Indian Affairs Deputy Director, Scott Atkins Feb. 18 to facilitate providing some trailers for the fire victims.
Yakama Legends Casino is providing boxed lunches and dinners to volunteers. Yakama Nation Fisheries is holding donated frozen goods in their huge freezer. Local farmers have donated fresh apples and pears. Toys for Tots donated a truckload of new toys for the children, and joined with the Pierce County Crime Stoppers in Tacoma, Wash. to reach out to local Tacoma TV stations and others for cash donations so victims can buy what they need.
Other programs are holding fundraisers, and a number of tribes have stepped up to assist the Yakama. The Yakama have stored an ample donation of fish from the Lummi Nation. The Tulalip, Nez Perce, Ho-Chunk, Muckleshoot, Swinomish, Nisqually and Chehalis tribes have made generous monetary contributions to help rebuild the community.
The Washington Gaming Association made a “small donation” on behalf of their board. “The tribes gave much larger amounts and our board decided to help as well,” WGA’s Ernie Stevens said.
The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians requested assistance from their 57 member tribes. “ATNI was founded with the collective well being of tribes at heart and current members are looking to assist Yakama in this difficult time,” said ATNI executive director Cleora Scott.
“We really are a family that is looking out for one another, and in Yakama’s time of need we are here for them,” said ATNI president Brian Cladoosby. “This is going to be a long process and we will be there for them until the community is rebuilt.”
Tomaskin said he wants all of the individuals, tribes and organizations who have assisted to know how much the Yakama Nation appreciates their outpouring of help. “There are so many to thank and if we’ve forgotten anybody, we apologize,” Tomaskin said. “For now it is a time for healing and rebuilding.”
Monetary donations can be made at any Bank of America: Name: Yakama Nation, account number 25938101, routing 125000024.
For wire transfers: Bank of America, wire room 100 W. 33rd St., NY, NY 10001, account number, 25938101, beneficiary name: Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, White Swan Fire Relief Fund, routing/transit (ABA) number, 0260-0959-3, CHIPS address: 0959, Swift Address: BOFAUS3N.
Donations are accepted at:
* Yakima Red Cross, 302 S. 2nd St., Yakima, WA., 98901, (509) 457-1690
* The Toppenish Armory, 326 S. Division St., Toppenish, WA., 98948 (509) 945-7246
* State Farm Insurance, 2706 W. Nob Hill, Ste. A, Yakima, WA., 98902 (509) 248-1818