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Saturday, October 22, 2005 | Many San Diegans still carry memories of the Cedar Fires of October 2003, the largest conflagration in California’s history. Among them are the county’s Indians, whose tribal governments joined communities in responding to the disaster.

Together with Gillespie Field, the reservation of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians was base camp for the California Department of Forestry, a housing and staging area for more than 5,000 firefighters. Pala, Rincon and San Pasqual also housed and fed firefighters. Tribes with hotels opened them to tribal members and residents of surrounding communities.

San Diego’s tribes respond to emergencies on their reservations and in surrounding communities regularly, but some are questioning whether they are full partners in California’s patchwork emergency planning.

“Tribal governments participate in the overall county response working with the California Department of Forestry, which is area fire coordinator for the county,” said Herman Reddick, assistant director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services. Tribes contribute gaming revenue to community grants for fire and rescue equipment, and tribal fire departments are included in the county’s fire Mutual Aid Agreement.

Since 2000, Sycuan has been closely associated with fire emergency response through San Diego’s Helicopter One program. Every summer, the tribe provides a “hot shot” team of nine firefighting shock troops. Deposited on the ground from the helicopter, the team cuts fire lines with chain saws, axes and shovels to clear brush and dig down to mineral soil. Copter One gives the hot shots cover, dropping water onto the fire to cool it.

Sycuan firefighters also send other hot-shot teams for fires and receive training in rescue techniques. No money exchanges hands for this program. “It’s a very productive relationship,” said Brian Fennessy, the battalion chief for air operation for San Diego’s Fire/Rescue Department. He knows of no other program like it in the country. “It’s unique,” he said.

“The tribes are more prepared than the public thinks,” said Chris Walters, the chairman of the California Tribal Nations – Emergency Management Council (CTN-EMC), which addresses all types of emergencies, including fire, earthquakes and terrorism. The statewide council was established through a FEMA grant and is modeled on the state’s Office Emergency Services, with three regions.

Walters, who is also the disaster coordinator for the San Manuel Fire Department, is a director of the council’s southern region, with 20 tribes in San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The council has no staff, and its working board of 12 tribal representatives dispenses information and planning templates to tribes across the state.

For instance, working with federal, state and local agencies, the council delivers training to citizen emergency response teams. So far, the council has trained 300 people in 18 tribes in a 20-hour FEMA community response course that covers an overview of terrorism, the workings of an incident command system, emergency management and psychological effects of disasters. Training, which is designed to enhance responder capacity, focuses on triage and rapid treatment. Walters identified participating San Diego tribes as La Jolla, Sycuan, San Pasqual, Los Coyotes, Pauma, Campo, La Posta and Ramona; Pechanga is outside county lines but a key responder for San Diego. In Valley Center, the council partners with rural communities, and Indians and non-Indians train together.

Despite their participation in disaster relief, tribes feel excluded from emergency preparedness. Walters describes emergency management as a wheel, a continuum of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. Tribes can address recovery and mitigation through FEMA, but funding for preparedness and response is not readily available. “It’s hard to have that continuum when you have a flat tire,” he said.

Differences between tribal and state governments in homeland security are the weak spot in the wheel. Ironically, despite Indian participation in disaster relief across the country, legislation creating the U.S. Homeland Security Department left American Indians out, even though more than 25 tribes have primary jurisdiction over lands adjacent to U.S. borders. When Congress was considering legislation to correct this omission, Anthony Pico, the chairman of the Viejas Band, told the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee that the bill would recognize “tribes as sovereign governments and rightful participants in Homeland Security.”

Passed in 2003, the bill brought tribes into Homeland Security as sovereign governments, but obstacles to full tribal participation persist in California, said Walters. The Office of Emergency Services does not recognize tribes as sovereign and lumps them in with counties, cities and other political subdivisions. But the amended federal Homeland Security Act could open federal grants directly to tribal governments.

Yet, while tribes want a separate stream of money under the banner of sovereignty, the state distributes homeland security funding to encourage regional cooperation in planning. California’s policy builds on the statewide Mutual Aid Agreement, said Gary Winuk, chief deputy director for California’s Office of Homeland Security. “We try to avoid stove piping where everyone wants to buy their own toys,” he said.

California received $283 million in federal Homeland Security funding for six categories of state and local grants in 2005. For local grants, representatives of public safety agencies in each county meet in January to plan how that year’s money will be spent. A five-person group of officials from local communities, but no tribal representation, approves the plan for a particular county.

Under California’s policy, tribes cannot determine preparedness and response as sovereign communities. Although the policy emphasizes cooperation, those collaborations don’t always happen, says Connie Reitman, the executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council. Also, the ability of localities to plan varies. “The complexity of it is in itself difficult to deal with. It’s supposed to be consistent,” she said. Nearly half of California’s tribes and rancherias are members of the nonprofit Inter-Tribal Council, which is based in Sacramento.

“The tribes have to fund themselves to meet federal mandates,” said Walters. And while gaming tribes can handle the cost, non-gaming or underprivileged tribes can’t do the planning, so the council, which does not charge membership fees, steps in to help.

Last year, in an effort to integrate the tribes in the emergency planning system, the Office of Emergency Services established a Native American affairs program. “Tribes now have a place at the table when we’re talking about emergency planning and response at a statewide level,” said Eric Lamoureux, the agency’s spokesperson. Winuk said that his department and the tribes have had conversations on their differences, and his department gave $50,000 to the tribes to “figure out how to participate in the system.”

La Jolla Band of Luisenos matched a FEMA grant with its own money to implement a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plan (PDMP). Under a PDMP, local governments, including tribes, identify hazards in their communities and develop strategies that could reduce the impact of disasters on infrastructure and people before the disaster occurs.

La Jolla identified fire as its most significant hazard, said Lavon Peck, a tribal member and consultant who helped develop the plan. The tribe then obtained funds from the Housing and Urban Development Department to clear brush – fuel – around homes and major roads. La Jolla also identified fire hydrants and septic ponds, after firefighters mistakenly scooped water out of septic ponds, thinking they were fresh water ponds. La Jolla also did a simulation of a 7.1 earthquake impact to help them understand the cost of rebuilding the community.

Completed in 2003, La Jolla’s PDMP was one of the first in the Pacific region. The planning paid off earlier this year, when floods struck the reservation. La Jolla was high on a priority list for FEMA, because the tribe had its plan in place. The agency had someone on site within a week or two to assess damage and the tribe was able to complete quick repairs to the camp grounds, its most important economic resource.

The planning process had other unexpected benefits, said Peck. The tribe now has nearly two dozen members with emergency response training, including CPR. As tribal members planned their response, community bonds strengthened, for instance as they identified their elders and disabled persons. “If we’re going to be in a disaster I want to be on a [reservation], because we take care of each other,” said Peck.

The only other San Diego tribe with a PDMP is Pala, although Peck said others are considering implementing one. Peck said tribes are short-sighted and cited the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. “Tribes feel that because of casinos they have the money; but what if disaster happens and you no longer have the casino. You’ll need assistance,” she said.

Reitman told a gathering of tribal representatives in Sacramento last month that tribal governments must adopt plans, ordinances and codes to define capacities and develop priorities for housing tribal and other people. Without exercising that sovereign right, the state, county or city can take over a casino and force tribes to open their doors. “If we don’t make the decision, we hand that right to someone else,” she said.

Cathy Robbins is a freelance writer who writes about Indian tribal issues.

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