Loss of pinon forest a blow to Washoe
October 4, 2012
No houses were lost in the 3,454-acre Carter Springs fire, but to the Washoe Tribe a part of their home went up in smoke.
Officially, Native American cultural resources were damaged, but Joyce James McCauley, who grew up on her family’s property in the Pine Nut Mountains, said it was as if she’d lost a member of her family.
“Last Friday (Sept. 21) changed my life,” she said of the fire. “It felt like I lost a family member.”
McCauley said the 160-acre parcel owned by her family is private property that appears on the tax rolls in her grandmother’s name. Gathering pine nuts and wood in the mountains was a family tradition handed down from the days before Europeans arrived in Nevada. McCauley said that tradition was passed down to her by her great-grandmother and grandmother.
“Last year I gathered so many pine nuts, I knew my grandmother would be proud of me,” said the 54-year-old Fernley resident.
This year, she and her husband were on the mountain in preparation for the annual pine nut gathering when she saw the fire down below them. The Ray May fire burned right up to the property line last summer.
“We’ve been going up there for hundreds of years. We watched it burning, and we could see that the highway was closed. We said, ‘Well, we’re not going anywhere.'”
The McCauleys took pictures and video of the fire down below them.
“At no time did I feel like I was in danger,” she said. “That’s because we know the mountains and how to get away from the fire. We almost know all the trees up there.”
During the first hours of the firefight, crews were working along Highway 395 to prevent the blaze from jumping the highway and threatening homes on the other side.
McCauley said she spoke with the fire management officer, who told her firefighters don’t work ahead of wildfires for safety reasons.
“Our property is up on top, where the fire raged out of control,” she said. “There’s a whole clearing there. They could have stopped the fire. They just let it burn, and that’s the part that hurts us so bad.”
McCauley said she wants to show her video to firefighters to find out why so much of her family’s property burned.
She pointed out that it would be years before the Pine Nuts recover, long after her uncles, who have been visiting that spot since they were children, are gone.
Washoe Tribal Vice Chairman Lloyd Wyatt agreed that for many of the tribe’s elders the fire was devastating.
“Throughout time immemorial, the land has always healed itself, yet we feel the sadness and heartache of those elderly tribal members, who may never see the healing of their lands in their lifetime,” he said in a statement issued on Thursday. “Most recently, the Carter Springs fire devastated several Washoe family allotment holdings in the area, and as tribal leadership it becomes heartbreaking to hear the stories and voices of those who have lost the pristine, rugged beauty of those affected areas. Stories of family time spent with elders long passed, with existing family members and friends, who gathered together in the annual tradition of gathering pine nuts, firewood, hunting and the social interaction of immediate family and friends.”
On Friday, which was Native American Day, McCauley and her husband went back to the James family property to assess the damage.
“As a child I spent a lot of time out there,” she said. “Thank God that he heard our prayers and saved part of our land.”