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Why one tribe is crowdfunding their wildfire recovery

My World's on Fire
Why one tribe is crowdfunding their wildfire recovery
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #106 • View online
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By the time you receive this email, firefighters are expected to have almost fully contained the Oak Fire in Mariposa County, California. (Not sure what it means to “contain” a fire? Check out this explainer from Popular Science.) 
The fire sparked in late July along the edge of Yosemite National Park and quickly consumed thousands of acres, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. At least three people were injured and more than 190 structures were destroyed. As pyrogeographer Dr. Crystal Kolden noted on Twitter, the wildfire was fueled by climate change conditions and the suppressive forest management tactics used in the area. 
Dr. Crystal A. Kolden 🔥
#OakFire is blowing up rn due three main factors: fuel load, heat, and very dry air (relative humidity). 108F today, RH only rose to 35% last night and was 5% at El Portal an hour ago. Area hasn't burned since 1924 per
Among those impacted were members of the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, which has called this lush, mountainous region home for time immemorial. According to Tribal Secretary Tara Fouch-Moore, several tribal members lost everything in the fire. Even those like Fouch-Moore, who considers herself fortunate since her house survived, dealt with the issues that come with evacuating for prolonged time, like finding affordable temporary housing and the loss of all perishable food. Even after the evacuation orders were lifted, residents in the area still struggled with unreliable power and water. Plus, as she told me by phone earlier this month, there’s the “emotional element.”
“To be displaced for two weeks and then come home to a place that’s covered in ash— your neighborhood will never look the same,” Fouch-Moore said. “There are cultural sites that have been burned over and maybe even bulldozed over in defending the community against the fire.”
Tribal members are eager to rebuild, Fouch-Moore said, but their next steps are made more challenging by the fact that the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation is not a federally-recognized tribe. This means they are not eligible for the many of the government benefits that are made available to tribal nations after disasters. PBS NewsHour offered a helpful explanation of what this practically means in an article about coastal tribes in Louisiana encountering similar roadblocks to recovery following Hurricane Ida:
“Without federal recognition, recovery is slower because the coastal tribes lack direct access to certain federal assistance and benefits. Following a federally declared disaster, tribes recognized by the government are treated autonomously, much like states, which allows them to directly negotiate aid and, in many cases, deliver it to their communities more quickly. For example, after Hurricane Dorian in 2019, FEMA provided assistance to the Seminole Tribe in Florida, which allowed its members access to community disaster loans, crisis counseling, disaster legal services, disaster unemployment assistance, fire management grants, disaster housing, and hazard mitigation grants.”
As Fouch-Moore explained, the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation has been petitioning for federal recognition since 1982 (you can see a timeline of those efforts here). The tribe also incorporated as a nonprofit, the American Indian Council of Mariposa County, as a way to in part protect their “historical, social, and cultural traditions” as best as possible without having that recognition. Still, the Oak Fire has been a reminder of the limitations they face, despite this decades-long fight.
“There’s more specialized, more culturally-appropriate assistance out there that we just aren’t able to access without recognition,” Fouch-Moore said.
Without being able to access such resources to address immediate members’ needs, the Miwuk Nation launched a GoFundMe, which will be used to purchase necessities like food and clothing for those impacted, as well as assist with needs like transportation, housing, and health services. Fouch-Moore said the tribe is also already weighing ways to become involved with the recovery of the area. One idea they’re hoping to move forward with is creating a “tribal conservation corps” that can implement traditional methods of land management, such as cultural burning.
“You hear a lot about fire suppression and how that’s caused this really major overgrowth in California that is exacerbated by the droughts,” she said. “And to be a Native person living in your homelands knowing that when your grandfather was a kid, it looked entirely different than it does now; knowing that your grandparents and their ancestors took care to manage the land and now that right has been removed from us— we aren’t even able to steward our lands anymore—and then to see that just decimate your entire community because of this lack of proper caretaking in some places, it’s just—you know, you get a whole range of emotions.”
Learn more:
  • This recent article from the San Francisco Public Press offers more details on the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation’s fight for federal recognition.
  • ABC30 spoke with one tribal family whose farm was devastated in the fire (it also happens to be where the iconic “double-rainbow” video was filmed in 2010).
  • And just to clarify any potential confusion: there are actually two active Oak Fire incidents in California right now. The second one ignited earlier this week and is located in Placer County. 
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