Tribes aided in wildfire recovery

Housing a major issue; volunteers help with cleanup, other needs.

BY STEVE HARTSOE | PAUMA VALLEY, Calif. | December 4, 2007

Ash and debris are being cleared from homes destroyed by fire on the La Jolla Indian Reservation.
Credit: P.J. Heller

A burned out car sits on the side of the road on the La Jolla reservation.
Credit: P.J. Heller

For John Villalobos, the recent wildfires that devastated large portions of Southern California stir dark memories of similar blazes in 2003 that ravaged more than 90 percent of the San Pasqual reservation where he ministers.

While his community was spared from this year’s fires, Villalobos said the tragedy has provided an opportunity for him and hundreds of other faith-based volunteers to minister to the American Indian community in Southern California.

Much of the fire damage has been in San Diego County, where 134 families living on four reservations have been displaced, said Villalobos, senior pastor at God is Love Ministries located in the county. They include 44 from La Jolla, 84 from Rincon, three from Santa Ysabel, and three from Pauma reservations, he said.

Some displaced residents found temporary shelter at nearby reservation casino resorts, while others are living at reservation cabins or with family or friends.

"They’ve kind of been jumping around, two weeks over here, two weeks over there," Villalobos said, adding that some who were displaced have started returning to the reservation.

The losses have been huge. One family of seven at the Rincon reservation lost its rental mobile home in the fire. God is Love Ministries, where Villalobos has worked for about a dozen years, helped the family find another rental home. Volunteers have been helping the family with donated gift cards, food, dishes and beds, among other needs.

He also said a van is all one elderly couple has left after the fires.

"They lost everything so they need everything," he said.

A trailer was donated to help the couple until they can find another permanent home, he said.

Villalobos said many displaced families are so focused on finding housing that they forget about necessities, including toiletries and medicine. Donations were helping meet those immediate needs and have even included utensils, plates and microwave ovens.

"Sometimes they're not even thinking about shampoo and those little things, they're just thinking about their homes," Villalobos said. "Somebody donated really nice shirts . . . about 20. I split them between two families."

Four of the county's 11 tribes suffered some form of damage from the wildfires that ravaged Southern California in October, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The worst damage was on the La Jolla reservation, where 92 percent of the tribal land was burned and numerous homes were lost, FEMA said.

The La Jolla tribe is a non-gaming reservation, which leaders said put it at a financial disadvantage in terms of recovery.

"Under the best of circumstances, the rebuilding of the community will take years, perhaps decades," tribal leaders said on their Web site. "Our financial position is insufficient to handle such a catastrophic event. Our tribe is in dire need of funds for our recovery process."

The fire also destroyed homes on the Rincon reservation, while smoke damaged some homes and power was lost at the Mesa Grande reservation and an agricultural well was damaged on Santa Ysabel tribal lands, said Mike Parker, FEMA tribal division supervisor in San Diego County.

Overall, the wildfires burned more than 800 square miles from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, destroying nearly 2,000 homes and leaving 10 people dead.

In addition to providing financial assistance to help with living and housing expenses, FEMA was expected to provide dozens of three-bedroom, furnished mobile homes to displaced families on the reservations, Parker said. The approval process includes checking survivors' insurance status and coverage level as well as inspecting potential sites for safety, utilities and other measures before displaced residents can move in.

One home has already been placed at the La Jolla reservation, FEMA officials said. Another mobile home was being placed in the eastern San Diego County town of Dulzura. they said.

Parker said the mobile homes are 14 feet by 60 feet, much larger than the travel trailers FEMA provided after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Parker said smaller trailers were used in the Gulf region largely because of concerns about flood plains, among other issues.

"We are not utilizing or considering travel trailers here for victims of the California wildfires," he said.

FEMA also contended that the mobile homes were safe although reports said the units have not been tested for formaldehyde levels. Serious health concerns have been raised about formaldehyde levels in the tens of thousands of travel trailers that FEMA has placed along the Gulf Coast for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The Sierra Club questioned the safety of the mobile homes being sent to California, saying its tests showed that the mobile homes might be dangerous for residents. Formaldehyde used in the manufacture of trailers - is a gas that can cause cancer and other illnesses.

"FEMA housing units should come with a warning sign: 'hazardous to your health,'" said Bill Corcoran, the Sierra Club's senior regional representative based in Los Angeles. "Fire survivors shouldn't be victimized by their own government."

Villalobos said the availability of the FEMA mobile homes can't happen soon enough.

"You can see the anxiousness that is setting in, they [displaced families] just want to go home," he said. "We have these trailers sitting here and we're hoping and praying that they will release these homes so they can get what they need."

While FEMA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are providing grants to help those who suffered losses in the fires, disaster assistance was also being provided by other groups, including Mennonite Disaster Service, Church World Service, Lutheran Social Services, Tzu Chi Foundation and the Red Cross, said Miriam Gelo, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison who is working with the tribes.

Wade Gayler, acting incident commander with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, said volunteers from his organization have been helping clean up debris and helping residents recover valuables - from homes that were burned on the reservations.

"If the homeowner will determine a location where jewelry or valuables have been, we’ll actually take a screen in and sift through the ashes and try to locate some wedding rings or valuables like that," Gayler said.

One of the highlights of the effort has been finding a few knives that had sentimental value to a man who lost his home.

"There was a joy," Gayler said. "And at that same house, we also found a couple of rings."

Southern Baptist volunteers, who have come from as far away as Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma and Texas, are also blessed by their work, he said.

"I think the only way that you can prepare yourself for this is pray that the Lord softens your heart and prepares you," he said. "It’s really hard for volunteers, you know, you're sifting through an individual's belongings but at the same time you get pleasure in serving the Lord and helping in a situation like that."

For the long term, Villalobos said church groups were offering to help with rebuilding, including a church in Connecticut that has offered to provide some 120 volunteers to help early next year. FEMA officials were also assisting tribes to organize for recovery and rebuilding, as well as offering assistance with mitigation plans to deal with future disasters.

Parker said only two of the county’s 11 tribes have such plans, which can determine future aid.

"We can't stop the disasters; they will occur from time to time," Parker said.

Future wildfires and the potential for flooding during the winter season are among the issues the plans should address, he said.

For church volunteers, living out their faith by helping victims on the reservations was already having impacts far beyond physical needs.

“Non-believers are saying they’re really amazed at how the churches have been stepping up," Villalobos said. “We don’t have to say we’re from this denomination and that denomination, we’re all working for the same [thing] and that’s important, that we're staying focused on who we are in Christ."

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