BIA Fire Officials Visit Hoopa to Discuss Budget and Collaboration Strategies
By Manuel Sanchez, Two Rivers Tribune
With fire season getting into full swing, the Hoopa Valley Tribe welcomed a high profile guest to the valley to discuss the fire season and the arson taskforce, which Hoopa is a part of.
Dalan Romero, a 35-year veteran of fire and the assistant national deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) fire division visited Hoopa for three days recently, going over the operations of the Hoopa Wildland Fire Department (HWFD) and meeting face-to-face with local fire responders from Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Karuk Tribal Fire Management, and Yurok Fire Management.
Romero said times are tough on everyone’s budget. Adding neighboring fire departments should work together to share the burden of cost for their area.
Romero’s duties for the BIA include coordinating and overseeing all native fire programs and fire fighting efforts with the U.S. government, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), USFS, Fish and Game, and the U.S. Parks Service. The goal is to make their services consistent, so no matter where the fire fighters are from, they will know the operations of any given Tribal or government department.
“It’s just a safety concern to have all fire departments trained the exact same way,” Romero said.
Hoopa Tribal Office of Emergency Services (OES) Director Rod Mendes said they are also talking with Romero about how to streamline the local dispatch services to make it more efficient.
Romero said they have to look at the dispatch issues to determine when and what is the best agency to track local communication between fire fighters so they can properly plan for a burning period and keep people safe. He said ideally they would make sure all dispatches have proper training because this would resolve a lot of issues that come up, saying “all players will have buy-in for the plan.”
Mendes said they need to find additional funding to keep dispatch services up and running for the area. Although his said a local dispatch is not essential, but it would help keep the area secure if the dispatch knew of locations and their landmarks.
Mendes said Romero was in Hoopa to review the HVWFD, which according to Mendes, is the only Tribal fire department that meets the basic standards set forth by the BIA.
“There is no other native run fire organization that has the credentials and experience of the Hoopa department,” Mendes said.
Since last fire season, the Cal Fire law enforcement division has stationed fire marshals in Hoopa to help combat the arson problem. The number of arson fires diminished compared to years past, so this fire season they came back.
According to a report from the HVWFD, when Cal Fire began operations on June 16, it was the earliest the taskforce began in Hoopa. Their goal this year was to decrease the number of arson fires in Hoopa in July, which is historically the area’s highest wildfire occurrence period.
“We are looking at every opportunity to reduce fire occurrences in Hoopa,” HVWFD Chief Gary Risling said. “Arson is the biggest problem we have here and in California, it has us over a barrel.”
This fire season has been rather slow and that is how the taskforce wants it. The 11-year average of fires in Hoopa by July 19 is 100 fires. The season thus far has seen 44 fire incidents, with nine of those false alarms.
Besides July being the busiest month for firefighters, the Fourth of July weekend usually sets the standard for how the month will go. This year, the HVWFD had to contend with just one fire on July 4 —the lowest on record since 1994.
Risling said his department has only had 20 fires this season, which is a low number compared to the average of three to fives times that amount.
“There is value looking at the cause of fire,” Romero said. “This is a long term issue. By finding the remote causes, you can find the solutions.”
Alan Carlson, deputy chief of Cal Fire law enforcement, said because fires are down this year, his department is footing the majority of the cost of his fire marshals in Hoopa, but when they leave, there needs to be a presence of fire control and enforcement on the reservation.
Carlson said arsonist are not just a Hoopa problem, they affect the entire region. The number of arsons have risen over the years, with some speculation being put on the fire fighters themselves.
“We have to realize that you can’t have bad apples in the department,” Carlson said. “There is some involvement by the department in the past, but it’s not rampant.”
Carlson said in his experience, people generally set arson fires for excitement or revenge. He said there has been an “absurd” amount of structure fires over the years that are based on “grudge fires,” where they were set to settle a score.
Romero said the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation is the number three ranked reservation in the country when it comes to the amount of annual arson fires; In 2007 Hoopa was ranked number one in California.
Risling said when the BIA put a stop to cultural burns, it led to the underbrush around the valley to flourish and become a fire danger. He said this practice needs to be looked at again.
“We haven’t scratched the surface of fire prevention,” Romero said. “We won’t know until we do a comprehensive fire program.”
Risling said arson isn’t going to stop until they start to get convictions for arsonists.
Risling said there were four suspected arsonist in the K-T’s 10 Most Wanted section of the Two Rivers Tribune, three of them were arrested in the past month. He praised the support of the community.
“We have to change people’s thought process in the valley, but we are seeing more support from the community,” Risling said. “We know we have a terrible arson problem here, it’s a crime.”
Risling and Romero are concerned that if nothing is done to end the arson problem, it could lead to more than the loss of property, but the loss of a life.
Romero said it will take a change of mindset for the community — like he has seen on other reservations — for this issue to get under control. He has worked with Tribes that are setting strict guidelines regarding arson on their lands, including banishment and reduction of per capitas.
“This has to be joint effort to combat this problem,” Romero said. “It’s not going to be easy, and we are going to have to sacrifice a little bit to get what is needed.”