Scorched Hills, Tribes Feel Bereft and Forgotten
November 5, 2003
By CHARLIE LeDUFF
SAN PASQUAL INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif., Nov. 4 - The indigenous people
who live in the hills of San Diego County hold to an old philosophy:
Fire takes what it wants, floods take what is left and nothing lives
long except the mountains.
"We've been living with fire forever," said Juana Majel-Dixon,
a Pauma Indian. "The rain will come soon and there will be more
suffering, but we'll get through it. Indian people always do."
While the nation's eyes were fixed on images of endangered resort towns
and wealthy suburbs, it has nearly gone by the boards that Indian
territory was hit inordinately hard by the recent wildfires.
With the last of the flames all but extinguished, the statistics of San
Diego's major fires, the Paradise and the Cedar, are staggering: nearly
340,000 acres burned, 16 dead, more than 2,337 homes destroyed. While
Indians are few in number, there are 18 reservations throughout the
county with an estimated 6,200 people, located in what was once
inaccessible scrub unsuited for farming.
The reservations are now the outer edges of the suburban sprawl and fire
officials estimate that 10 percent of the total land burned was Indian
country, with three reservations completely scorched and a handful of
others severely damaged.
Hardest hit was the San Pasqual reservation, about 35 miles north of San
Diego. Its entire 1,400 acres were burned, as were more than a third of
its homes, mostly uninsured trailers and prefabricated units. Two local
people died trying to escape the inferno; two others died on the Barona
reservation to the south.
"Fire doesn't know city limits or reservation boundaries,"
said Allen E. Lawson, the San Pasqual tribal chairman. "It doesn't
discriminate on the basis of skin color or wealth."
Indeed, much of the territory has been reduced to little more than
cigarette tailings, bedsprings and auto carcasses.
Acres of manzanita resemble stickmen, the water canal is parched and the
leaves on the oak trees are as hard as playing cards.
The reservation's casino, the sole engine of economic life here, escaped
major damage. Just a wall and four slot machines were destroyed, and
signs dot the reservation thanking firefighters for their efforts.
A few miles to the north, the Rincon reservation was 75 percent burned,
with more than 20 homes lost. On the Barona reservation, home of one of
the state's most successful casinos, two people died and 47 homes were
lost, but the casino was spared.
In all, 14 reservations were affected.
Rumors run rampant here. While fire officials believe that a lost hunter
started the Cedar fire to the south, there is no explanation for the
Paradise fire, which started behind the Rincon Casino and destroyed more
than 56,000 acres and 117 homes.
A report is circulating among Indians that a white may have started the
blaze, someone who harbored bad feelings against Indians after the
recent election that led to the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.
During the campaign, Indian tribes donated millions of dollars to Lt.
Gov. Cruz Bustamante and a lesser amount to Governor Davis. Meanwhile,
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to be elected governor, criticized
Indians as the type of special interests that had hamstrung state
"No one wants to say this was set to take out Indian country,"
said Michele Nelson, a council member of the Rincon Indian Nation.
"But you've got to wonder with all the bad feelings around here
about the recall. We got calls during the fire saying, `That's what you
Indians deserve.' "
President Bush surveyed the devastation by helicopter on Tuesday with
Governor Davis and Mr. Schwarzenegger, who is scheduled to become
governor on Nov. 17. They met with local officials, including some
Indian leaders, allaying fears among Indians that their needs would be
"We feel like we were on our own," said Ms. Nelson of the
Rincon Indian Nation. "There are some hard feelings that linger
While Governor Davis and Mr. Schwarzenegger have toured some of the
devastation across the state, neither has set foot on Indian lands since
the fires broke out.
Mr. Lawson, the San Pasqual chairman, was among the Indian leaders
invited to speak with the president on Tuesday. He said he planned to
present a wish list to Mr. Bush and explain that most people from his
reservation who were burned out were not insured and lived on trust
Frances Jones is one such person. At 94, she is the oldest member of the
San Pasqual tribe. When she saw the fires racing up the hill toward her
trailer, she grabbed her keys, purse and a sweater and drove away. In 15
minutes her home was gone.
"I never thought there would be a fire like this in all my
life," Mrs. Jones said. "Then again, I never thought I'd live
Dressed in borrowed clothes, Mrs. Jones said she felt fortunate. She is
alive and is staying nearby with a friend. "My daughter wants me to
come to Los Angeles with her," she said. "But that's the last
place I'd ever want to live."
The inevitable complaining about how much could have been done or done
differently has begun. To a person, private citizens thank the
firefighters for their efforts, but have accused Governor Davis of being
too slow in responding to the fires. They also complain about nearby
military equipment and personnel sitting idle, and the decision to
ground a sheriff's pilot because of darkness just minutes before he was
to dump water on the fledgling Cedar fire.
Indian leaders also contend that too little attention is being paid to
the situation of their people.
"All the attention is being paid to Scripps Ranch and those
million-dollar homes," said Bobby Barrett, vice president of the
Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Whether they lost a mansion or a
trailer, he said, people are equal when they are homeless.
Audrey Toler, 76, a Pasqual Indian who stood shoeless in a burning field
while the reservation burned around her, said it was better to
concentrate on the positive.
"I'm happy to be alive," she said. "People should think
Steven Lovett, a member of the Pasqual tribe, remains in a San Diego
hospital, struggling with an infection and the likely loss of his ears.
Mr. Lovett, a Navy corpsman who returned from Iraq in August, was
severely burned after he managed to get a young woman safely to a
hilltop before he was enveloped in flames. The woman's sister died in
her car just down the road.
"He's awake and talking," said Mr. Lovett's aunt, Marilyn
Lycett. "He says he feels bad because he couldn't save the other
girl. He is a good, young man."
IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Below are the details and information on the Disaster
Relief Fund for Tribes that the Executive Committee directed be created
to assist tribes affected by the wild fires in Southern CA. We are aware
that many calls of interest have been received on how people might be
able to help the tribal communities.
Contribution checks should be made out to:
The Disaster Relief Fund for Tribes
Checks should be mailed to:
Borrego Springs Bank
ATTN: Joanne McBride
7777 Alvarado Road, Suite 114
La Mesa, CA 91941