In a time of high anxiety about drought-related fire risks, an unusually high number of fires, many caused by arson, have the Hoopa Valley Tribe bringing in outside help.
At least 30 suspected arson fires — and one that destroyed a couple of structures — have occurred since May, and the tribe has brought in equipment, investigation and firefighting teams from as far away as Oklahoma to fight the menace. The fire investigations are ongoing and results won’t be publicly released until they’re complete, according to a Hoopa press release. No arrests have been made.
“It’s higher than past seasons,” said tribe spokeswoman Kristan Korns. “Historically for some reason in the past decades there have been a high number of arson fires, and that number has risen in the past year and a half.”
Korns said that a recent fire burned down one house and a shed and threatened other houses. Arson fires last year destroyed the tribal credit office as well as a lumber mill and vehicles that were in the equipment yard. No arrests were made in that incident, Korns said.
“It’s an ongoing problem, and it’s worse now when you start getting arson incidents at houses near a populated area,” he said, adding that plants that grow between houses create a particularly dangerous situation. “In these kind of drought conditions they’re super dry, so if a fire gets into those hedges it could spread very rapidly.”
Korns wouldn’t speculate why so many arson incidents had occurred, but he said they didn’t have anything to do with cultural burns, which are performed with careful supervision, he said.
Josh Simmons, fire management officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Region, said Hoopa Valley is among the top five reservations with human-caused fires. The tribe recently won approval for long-term severity funding from the BIA’s national office to help deal with the extremely dangerous fire situation. Additionally, BIA crews have helped fight fires caused by lightning strikes burning to the northeast and southeast of Hoopa Valley, as well as the human-caused fires, including the Sugar Bowl fire that closed Highway 96 between Hoopa and Willow Creek earlier this month.
In addition to a helicopter and helitack crew, the tribe has also brought in engines and crew from Tuolumne Rancheria, Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and the Wewoka Agency in Oklahoma.
Last week, the Hoopa Tribal Council voted to remove and exclude from the reservation anyone who deliberately commits any type of arson, Korns said.
“This is not done very often — it’s been done in the past for repeat drug dealing offenses, and it’s on the book for people accused of child molestation,” Korns said. “They’re removed from the reservation and not allowed to return.”