This past Friday (03/23/2012), Faith Berry (Firewise Advisor), Soledad Holguin (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fire Prevention Specialist), Jim Nanamkin (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Regional Wildfire Prevention Specialist ), Dell Ostenberg (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Safety Officer) and I visited the LaJolla Band of Luiseńo Indians located 55 miles northwest of San Diego off Highway 76 in the Pauma Valley. We met Adam Giesler, the Tribal Council Secretary, and discussed the Firewise Communities/USA® recognition program. Adam went into great detail about all the wonderful work his Band has accomplished since the tragic Poomacha Fire of 2007 where 147 houses and 77 outbuildings were destroyed and took 19 days to contain.
The biggest challenge this remote community faced was the fact that there were several other conflagration events taking place simultaneously, and federal and state resources were assigned to other areas during the course of the firefight. Adam and Soledad went on to describe the events of the fire and how the tribal elders protected several cultural sites on a nearby ridge. Adam told us how 3 days after the main flame front had moved through the community, houses that were initially thought to have been saved, burned down due to secondary ember exposure.
Subsequent to these harrowing events, the Reservation has undertaken a number of projects that included improving emergency response systems, hardening and creating defensible space around homes and installing a fuel break on their southern boundary. Even though the Reservation has done a lot of fuel mitigation, Adam acknowledged that moving forward, getting recognized as a Firewise/Community USA would be an important tool for them to sustain the effort and remind tribal members of their responsibilities. Adam said that his community needs to prepare for the next event knowing full well that they probably will be on their own again. Jim Namankim went on to say that the federally-funded fuel break gave the community a false sense of security and in the event of another conflagration event, embers can still travel more than 1 mile. Jim went on to say that the application of Firewise principles in and around the home ignition zone was critical to the structure survivability should another event like the Poomacha fire take place again.
Upon leaving the La Jolla Indian Reservation we were able to provide Adam with copies of the Getting Started with Firewise Kits and some other fire prevention material that was produced specifically by NFPA’s Public Education Division High-Risk Outreach Programs for the aging Native American population and donated materials from Amerind Risk Management Corporation that provided First Peoples Program CD’s focused on K1-2 youth fire prevention. Adam indicated that he was not only going to promote the idea with his Tribal Council, but he has gained trust and direct contact with 16 other Tribal Leaders within the region. My hope is that Faith will get invited back to present materials on how to become a recognized Firewise community and will be given the opportunity to facilitate the application process. All in all, it was a very interesting and productive meeting.