© 2023 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Oregon's Willamette Valley seen from Eugene
NPR for Oregonians
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

2020 Finds Indigenous Nations Preparing For Wildfires And COVID-19

Leah Nash

As wildfire season gets underway, Native American tribes in Oregon are cautiously preparing under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Note: Support for this coverage comes from Underscore.news, a reporting team focused on public service journalism based in Portland, Oregon.

At a firefighter boot camp in Grand Ronde, roughly 30 recruits prepare to dive into individual fire shelters.  These flexible, body-length coverings serve as a last-resort tool when the user is overcome by fire.  A trainer prepares to hit them with a few gusts from a leaf blower, to simulate harsh winds that may hamper survival efforts.

Credit Leah Nash
A trainer with a leaf blower hits a new recruit as they try to wrap themselves into an individual fire shelter.

It’s not just out-of-control wildfires that can threaten firefighters this year.  COVID-19 is also on their minds. Earlier this month, coordinators cut the five-day boot camp schedule to three. And firefighters who passed last year’s training were “grandfathered” in for this season.

Colby Drake is Fire Prevention Manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. He shares other protocols in place this year.

“Temperature checks, checking in daily with our staff and employees seeing where they are, before we get even deployed to a fire assignment we have to make sure that’s all good.”

Firefighting is a reliable, lucrative line of seasonal work for many Native Americans.  Drake hopes that firefighters safeguard themselves and their team should they suspect they have the coronavirus.

Credit NIH
Novel coronavirus.

“One of the things that we’re really going to have to hammer home is integrity with people, and telling the truth whether they’re sick and not feeling well," says Drake.

"Because at the end of the day a lot of people are doing this job for making some good money and that’s the last thing they want to do, is impact that opportunity for people.”

Besides immediate health risks to native firefighters, there’s also threats to neighboring communities, including reservations.  Tim Vredenburg is Director of Forest Management for the Cow Creek Tribe. He says the pandemic and fire season can harm people with underlying conditions.  

“You know, when there’s a global pandemic that specifically affects the respiratory system - to have wildfire that could be contributing more particulate, more smoke into the atmosphere, aggravating respiratory health, I feel that initial attack and aggressive fire response is critical.”

Credit Leah Nash
Logan Kneeland of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde talks to trainees at a June 15 boot camp.

And there’s the economic threat. For many tribes, timber is a primary source of revenue after casinos.  Cody DeSautel is Natural Resources Director for the Colville Tribes, and a member of the Intertribal Timber Council.  He fears that COVID-19 may tax wildfire operations, which in turn can reduce their effectiveness.  He recalls such an issue on the Colville Reservation five years ago.

“We had two big fires that broke on the reservation, had very few suppression resources because they were allocated to other places that had more communities and people at risk," DeSautel tells KLCC.

"So we ultimately saw about 250,000 acres burn on our reservation that year, about 800 million board feet of timber. It was probably $100 million worth of timber that burned up that year.”

That destroyed acreage means less funding for tribal programs, including elder and youth services, adds DeSautel.  He hopes the 2020 wildfire season is light, so there’s less strain on firefighters and the tribe’s well-being.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
Related Content