by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The Yakama Nation is seeking help and support to aid the survivors of a wildfire that destroyed 20 homes, burned parts of several more, and displaced over one hundred people from the small town of White Swan, Washington, in the heart of the Indian Reservation in central Washington state.
In a February 16 open letter, Yakama Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin wrote of the need for outside assistance from the United States and other governments to help in the care for the displaced and the immediate cleanup in White Swan.
The Yakama Nation has been in a state of emergency since the fire began in the afternoon on February 12. The Yakama Nation estimates the cost of rebuilding is at least $4 million, and with other emerging environmental concerns, that sum will only increase.
'We are grateful for the miracle that everyone got out alive, including the people who ran into the street on bare feet as their homes went up in flames, and the babies, the elders, and three people with profound disabilities who all survived because the community pulled together,' Chairman Smiskin said. 'We cannot overlook that blessing as we turn to the difficult work ahe
ad of getting people securely housed for as long as it takes to clean up and rebuild a beautiful White Swan.'
A chimney fire is believed to have started in one home and quickly spread by wind and 50-mph gusts that carried the fire from house to house, down a dry, wooded creek bed, and then to more distant homes. The vibrant town of White Swan is devastated by the damage to a total of 24 homes, including some multi-family residences, and destruction of other property including cars, bicycles, and all personal belongings for many. Now members of this tight-knit Yakama community are scattered across the large reservation, some staying with family and others housed in motels.
'Few of those whose houses burned could afford homeowner's insurance, and few have savings to fall back on, making recovery of families and housing in this tribe of 10,000 even more challenging,' said Chairman Smiskin in his letter.
Chairman Smiskin states a request for the following kinds of help:
o Skilled volunteers who can assist in cleanup, including certified asbestos remediation experts, heavy equipment operators, and homebuilders.
o Donations of money, clothes, food, and other household goods, including diapers and supplies for babies and children.
o Temporary housing for displaced people and assistance with rebuilding the destroyed houses.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to bring 10 or 12 trailers to the reservation, which is about half the number of the Yakama Nation's 22 displaced households. The government of Washington state, which has been dedicated to building a relationship with the Yakama Nation, now must answer their call for help in the face of this disaster.
Chairman Smiskin states, 'These are lands that the United State government holds in trust for Indian people and we hope that the Federal government in the form of the U.S. Congress and the various agencies will respond as they have to other disasters. We believe that more homes have been destroyed by this fire than on any Indian reservation in the history of this country.'
Complicating the cleanup, many of the homes were built in the era when asbestos was commonly used in insulation, drywall, and floors.
Now, Chairman Smiskin said, 'the mere potential presence of asbestos among the ashes and debris now littering White Swan presents a serious, time-consuming, and expensive environmental dilemma.'
In the immediate term, the Yakama Nation is worried about getting safe housing and collecting money, food, clothing, and other essentials for those who lost their homes or are displaced until cleanup and repair can occur. One of the most pressing needs is for diapers, formula, bottles, baby food, clothing, bedding, and other baby supplies. The Indian Health Service opened after the weekend fire to replace medicines for survivors, but it will take far more to help the displaced people for the months or years that it takes to rebuild White Swan.
While the Yakama Nation, its people, and its neighbors have responded over the past few days with open hands and hearts, the needs in the short term and the long term remain great.
In addition to the local businesses and centers that are accepting donations, the Yakama Nation has set up the following ways for people across the country to contribute to the community's recovery: The White Swan Fire Relief Fund at Bank of America, with donations accepted at branches nationwide. Donations also can be made at the Toppenish Armory, 326 S. Division St., Toppenish, WA, 98948. Donations can be mailed to Yakama Nation CFO Henry Roy, P.O. Box 151, Toppenish, WA, 98948.