At age 80, Washoe elder Steven James doesn’t expect to live long enough to see the return of the pine nut crops destroyed in the wildland fires that scorch ancestral homelands.
The recent Bison fire consumed 24,000 acres — more than 3,000 acres of Washoe allotment land — destroying historic pine nut areas, animal habitat and other plant life.
“It’s a terrible, terrible loss,” James said in a recent interview. “A lot of the Washoe culture is about the land. All of our history lies in our land. The things that went with it (the fire) are all gone.”
James enumerated the cost to the Washoe Tribe.
“Our pine nuts for one thing, probably some of the other kinds of food are all destroyed — berries, plants, different kinds of animals — it’s going to take a long time. It will be years — years — before it comes back,” he said.
Monitoring the fire and protecting resources is the job of Darrel Cruz, head of the Washoe Tribe cultural resources department and a retired wildland firefighter.
When the fire started on July 4, Cruz was immediately in touch with Tribal Chairman Darrell Kizer, Marie Barry, tribe environmental director, and fire suppression agencies, putting to work his expertise in wildland firefighting and cultural resources.
“The next day, I met with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and fire officials in the Indian allotment,” he said.
“It’s been our policy to do minimal damage to these resources, but at the same time protect them. We understand the need to stop the fire. It’s kind of a balancing act, but all the fire officials understand it,” Cruz said.
Allotments are federal properties held in trust by individual family members.
Cruz said few outbuildings were lost, but damage to the land resources was devastating.
The land has been used by generations of Washoe families to gather pine nuts and firewood, and for hunting.
Once the fire is extinguished, and the damaged assessed, rehabilitation begins. Cruz is concerned about erosion and the potential for runoff.
“The priority is to stabilize areas prone to erosion,” Cruz said.
Aerial seeding is anticipated with a native seed mix, but Cruz said, with the extensive damage, seed banks are low.
Of primary importance is stabilization of the riparian areas.
“Those are the water courses,” Cruz said. “That will always be important because everything depends on water and stream zones.”
He and James expect displaced animals to try to reclaim their former habitat from human occupation.
“The animals will be pushed out to new areas,” James said.
Cruz stressed the importance of the archeological sites.
“For the Washoe, you get an association with a certain place, it says something is happening here. For a lot of the archeological sites I find, it’s a feeling,” Cruz said. “It’s our story, the story of us. It says ‘we were here, and this is what we were doing.’
“It’s important to us — and the country as a whole — to maintain our history,” Cruz said.
Despite the devastation, Cruz sees hope.
For the past six years, he’s been monitoring recovery efforts from the 2007 Angora fire that consumed 3,100 acres and 250 homes south of Lake Tahoe and east of Fallen Leaf Lake, through ancestral tribal property.
“It’s coming back,” Cruz said. “I am just glad to see the land is recovering and the forest is regenerating.”
“All of our history lies in our land. The things that went with it (the fire) are all gone.”