Within the first few days of the Creek Fire, Tammie Walker had already been displaced twice.
She left her home at Big Sandy Rancheria in Auberry on Sept. 5 after members of the Tribal Council warned evacuations were coming.
About 170 people of the federally recognized tribe of the Big Sandy Rancheria Band of Western Mono Indians live on the land that stretches over 300 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills of eastern Fresno County.
By Sept. 6, nearly everyone had left the area. Now, Native families are watching and waiting from hotel rooms and friends’ homes from Fresno to Visalia.
Walker went to stay with her daughter down the hill on Frazier Road, which was evacuated the next day. She and her family have been in a hotel in Fresno ever since.
Meanwhile, the west edge of the fire is just a few miles from her community.
“Right now our house is standing, thank the Lord for that. Red Cross is helping us for housing, and we’re just trying to make ends meet, day by day,” Walker said Monday from an evacuation center in Fresno.
She was there to check in with Owens Valley Career Development Center, which links tribal members to resources. As of Monday, representatives had worked with around 100 people.
When can they return to Rancheria?
Walker is anxious to get back to the home she loves, where she is surrounded by family, but it’s unclear when that will be. She was told it could be a month.
“I wish I had a crystal ball for that,” said Tribal Council Chairperson Elizabeth Kipp, who also worked as a firefighter with the Forest Service for about a dozen years.
During the Creek Fire, she’s attending every briefing at 7 a.m. and sharing information with the tribal community, as well as letting fire crews know the locations of sensitive cultural areas that should be avoided when they are bulldozing fire lines.
Over the last week at the Rancheria, the power was out, generators ran out of fuel, and storage tanks for drinking water emptied. On Sunday, PG&E turned the power back on and the community water system is pumping water to fill the storage tanks.
Kipp is also laser-focused on the fire’s edge at Redinger Lake, hoping crews are able to anchor that line despite steep terrain. If spot fires ignite down the San Joaquin River canyon, she said, there’s a direct path to the Rancheria.
“Oh my goodness, my tribal members,” she said. “They knew (the evacuation) was coming, and they were prepared. Hats off to them. I was so relieved.”
Cynthia Sandoval, a 74-year-old grandmother, said “there was ash raining from the sky and smoke everywhere,” when she left the Rancheria on Sept. 6.
Even so, the flames weren’t as close as those from the Powerhouse Fire that threatened the community in 1989, Kipp said.
“That’s why everyone understands why it is so important to get out of that area,” she said.
The Rancheria government has made ongoing efforts to protect the land from the constant threat of wildfire, including fire breaks and clearances around structures.
There’s also a fuel break to the north called Comstock. It’s been in place for decades and was recently reinforced by CalFire.
“That’s what saved us from the Powerhouse Fire,” Kipp said.
For now, she’s grateful evacuees and tribal members can get resources from American Red Cross, Owens Valley Career Development Center and the Fresno American Indian Health Project.
“I know they want to get back home,” Kipp said. “Us mountain folks don’t like being here in the city. They’re so used to having home-cooked meals. They’re getting tired. Kids in the hotel rooms are going crazy.”
“I’m proud,” she said. “They’re enduring it, just like everyone else.”
Following a morning briefing on Tuesday, Kipp announced on the Racheria Facebook page that fire crews are doing aggressive mop up of the nearby Jose Basin Area and surrounding areas are allowed to repopulate.
Fresno Bee Staff Writer Robert Kuwada contributed to this story.