Klamath Tribes assist county fire response as homelands burn
Article by: Alex Schwartz (Herald and News Staff Reporter)
While the Two Four Two Fire rips through their former reservation and threatens historic sites, the Klamath Tribes are working with Klamath County officials to provide a safe harbor for evacuees.
And no, they’re not turning non-Native people away.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 10,000 acres of brush and forest between Spring Creek and Agency Lake west of Chiloquin had been scorched by the fire, fueled by unprecedented heat and wind conditions that have set much of the Western U.S. ablaze.
In addition to burning lands used by tribal members for hunting and gathering in accordance with their treaty rights, the fire also swept through Klamath Agency, which contained several historically important buildings.
The old state school used to educate reservation residents, along with original tribal homes and buildings the tribal council used to use for meetings were all burned. The tribes had plans to purchase those buildings in order to preserve the area as a historical landmark.
Just south of Klamath Agency, the fire also destroyed the home of long-time tribal leader and advocate Charles “Chuck” Kimbol Sr., who passed away in August. Kimbol helped restore the tribes following termination and served as tribal chairman for several consecutive terms after their success. Crews were able to spare the home earlier on Tuesday, but it eventually succumbed to the flames. Just days after Kimbol’s family gathered there this past Saturday to remember him, the home is gone.
Near the Kimbol home, a spot fire also formed west of Highway 62 near the Lobert Cemetery, a tribal cemetery containing several important graves. Though crews were able to put it out Monday night, it flared up again on Tuesday.
Tribal chairman Don Gentry called the destruction “a heartbreaker for our people” and said he was working with the Kimbol family to offer help.
Tribal members, including Gentry’s aunt, were among those who had to evacuate their homes in or near the burn area. Elders who could not do so on their own were provided assistance.
Immediately following the fire’s onset Monday night, emergency personnel from the county asked tribal Emergency Manager Zak Jackson if they could set up an evacuation shelter in the parking lot of Kla-Mo-Ya Casino, just north of the intersection between Highway 97 and Highway 62, due to its abundance of parking space.
The tribes immediately said yes, and the local Red Cross chapter and the County Emergency Response Team (CERT) have since been assisting evacuees around the clock there.
“It was the only place we knew to send people immediately and initially, because we knew that they were willing to let that number of people just show up,” said Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber. “We were blessed to have them working with us to be able to do that.”
Kaber said he was surprised and disappointed to hear rumors that the tribes were turning non-tribal members away from Kla-Mo-Ya.
Such rumors likely came from a racist, profanity-laced video circulated on Facebook Tuesday night, which asserted that the tribes were reserving the casino’s accompanying Sleep Inn hotel for tribal members only and called on viewers to sue the tribes in response.
The post, which received hundreds of comments from the community refuting the accusation, has since been removed from the platform.
“I just know that to be untrue, and it’s unfortunate that people can make comments like that,” Kaber said.
The Sleep Inn is currently at capacity (with every other room left vacant due to COVID-19 restrictions), and is occupied by roughly half tribal members and half non-tribal members. Because the hotel has no more capacity, the Red Cross has been working with other properties in Klamath Falls to house evacuees. Those with campers can stay in the parking lot if they wish.
“It was probably some miscommunication or misunderstanding of some services,” Jackson said. “During disastrous events, it’s neighbors helping neighbors.”
In a Facebook Live update Wednesday morning, Gentry addressed the rumors, saying he was “really concerned about the safety of our people.” He warned anyone around the Kla-Mo-Ya/Chiloquin area to remain vigilant for people who may want to violently retaliate against the tribes due to the misinformation.
Gentry said the tribes have declared a state of emergency, which will open the door for federal funding to help tribal members who have been displaced. They’re also planning to use existing funds to add facilities at Kla-Mo-Ya for evacuees, like port-a-potties and hand-cleaning stations.
In his Facebook Live update, Gentry reiterated the tribes’ commitment to helping with the emergency response from a cultural standpoint. He repeated a saying often used by tribal elders: “Because we’re giving and loving people, if a visitor came and the only thing we had to share was a flea, we would share that flea.”
*The Red Cross evacuation center is on-site at the Klamath Tribes Kla-Mo-Ya Casino property at: 34333 US-97, Chiloquin, Oregon.
*The Klamath Tribes are also in the process of setting up a donation center at their Tribal Health Offices at 6000 New Way in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Information about the donation center will be sent out when finalized.
Special prayers and blessings go out to everyone during this disaster. And of course “THANK YOU – SEPKETCHA” to all our FIRE FIGHTERS and Emergency personnel.
Thank you everyone. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
*Thank you also goes to fellow reporter, Alex Schwarts for this accurate news article. During times of stress and hardship we know people’s emotions are high. Your news and information at these stressful times is appreciated. – Taylor Tupper, Klamath Tribes News Dept. Manager.