Scorching Summer Pose Threats to Lives and More on the Reservations

The season for fun in the sun is here, with cookouts, hiking, swimming and more. In the Southwest, however, summers also bring record-breaking heatwaves, droughts and wildfires, posing an increased risk to inhabitants. The U.S. Forest Service has already restricted access to some public lands this summer to reduce fire threat.

Akin to last year’s record, some 20 wildfires have burned throughout Arizona, five in New Mexico and more than 30 across California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado –scorching tens of thousands of acres of land and impacting far more than the physical landscape.

Rafael Tapia, Jr. - PWNA VP of Programs

In addition to devastating the land itself, wildfires threaten animal life, natural water systems, economic and social norms, environment and cultural resources. They also impact living communities, recreational areas and revenue streams, and often displace both the people who reside in those areas and the livestock on which they depend.

For Tribal communities, harsh summer conditions only make pre-existing challenges more acutely felt, such as inadequate access to food and housing, limited job opportunities and over-stressed budgets. Equally concerning is the lasting disruption to lands that are both sacred sites and ancestral food sources for Native Americans. Take, for example, two previous wildfires that still impact the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona.

The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire was the ninth largest wildfire in U.S. history. The flames burned through more than 462,600 acres throughout north-central Arizona, including 280,000 acres of Tribal land. It damaged, and in some cases destroyed, ecosystem resources and disrupted the water cycle within the ponderosa pine forests.

Less than a decade later, the 2011 Wallow Fire became the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, burning more than 538,000 acres and once again disrupting life for the Tribe residing in the region. The increased risk of fires resulted in the near closure of the Fort Apache Timber Company and a loss of more than 200 jobs. The long-lasting impact is reflected in today’s unemployment and poverty rates in the community.

Our reservation partners in the Southwest often request emergency relief provisions from PWNA in the summer months. We also provide summer care packages to Native Elders proactively, knowing the risk and outages they face not only from wildfires, but unbearable heat, drought and thunderstorms.

Unfortunately, negligence has resulted in many human-caused wildfires that had major consequences. If you’re headed outdoors this summer, please remember to take precaution and follow safety guidelines in remote or recreational areas. The more we protect the land, the better we can preserve the history and memories of those who cherished it long before us.

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