San Miguel County Firefighters battle a brush fire along Japatul Road during the Valley Fire in Jamul, California on September 6, 2020 - The Valley Fire in the Japatul Valley burned 4,000 acres overnight with no containment and 10 structures destroyed, Cal Fire San Diego said. (Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER / AFP) (Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Viejas Fire Department Chief Bob Pfohl told The Real News he breathed “huge sigh of relief” that the over 17,000-acre Valley Fire in eastern San Diego County, which destroyed 30 homes, wasn’t even worse. Had the 45-55 MPH winds blown as forecasted, the destruction could have proven far more severe.

“[The winds not arriving] gave us more time to work on things as best we could and the day before the weather was mild by comparison to the first few days—kind of overcast conditions, cooler temperatures, not—not real strong winds,” Pfohl said of the fire, now 90% contained.

A fire chief in various San Diego County jurisdictions for 12 years, Pfohl oversees a department for the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians with 20 staffed firefighters who do their work in the eastern part of San Diego County, 24 miles from San Diego’s city limits. Pfohl said that while wildfires are a fundamental part of life in San Diego County, this was different due to the converging threats of a record heat wave, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and so many fires happening statewide simultaneously.

“You factor all that and the strategy and decisions are very challenging,” he said.

The fire near San Diego shows how, in the age of climate change-worsened wildfires in California and the broader western U.S., sometimes avoiding the worst ravages of megafires is just a matter of luck.

Two other tribal reservations in the area, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Jamul Indian Village, were also barely spared from the Valley Fire. In northern California, too, the Hoopa Valley Reservation had a close call, with tribal land located right next to the Red Salmon Fire. The fire started on July 27 and was only 17% contained as of Sept. 16, covering over 100,000 acres.

Almost 7,900 distinct fires have torn through 3.4 million acres in California so far this year. That’s the most acreage burned in a year in state history. The latest wave of fires have killed 25 people, according to Cal Fire. Making these numbers all the more shocking is the fact that California’s official wildfire season isn’t even here yet, and is generally at its worst from late September through October.

At a Sept. 11 press conference in burned down Butte County, Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the enormity of the wildfires. He stated we are in the midst of a “climate damn emergency” and that California is “America on fast-forward” for the climate crisis.

 

“Mother Nature is physics, biology and chemistry. She bats last and she bats 1,000. That’s the reality,” Newsom said. “The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes.”

Three days later, President Donald Trump dismissed climate change in a visit with Newsom and his climate team.

“It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump said during the visit.

California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot responded to the president, “I wish science agreed with you.”

“Well, I don’t think science knows actually,” Trump said.

The reality of climate science was apparent from the Viejas Kumeyaay reservation. The glow from the fire was visible from tribal land, and smoke engulfed the reservation, said resident Ral Christman, son of a longtime California Fire firefighter, and host of the Live From The Rez podcast. He said reservation residents were spared from the worst of the fire because it happened two mountainous hillsides and two valleys away. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t affected.

“You can look over there and see the smoke plume come up and it looked like a bomb had gone off or something and you see that smoke cloud come up,” Christman said. “And what happens is it goes up and it starts to fill the sky and come back down.”

Christman said that fires exist as part of the natural ecosystem in the region, something the Kumeyaay Indigenous people have learned to contend with over generations. Their relationship with the land has taught the Kumeyaay people how to prepare for wildfire season well in advance, doing things such as weed abatement and preventative burns around the perimeter of reservation land. And yet, despite preparation, the climate crisis has created unprecedented challenges for those living on the reservation.

“Well, we’ve lived here so long that our people have experienced more than just one climate. We’ve been here through various climates,” Christman said. “But definitely we are seeing right now that there is a shift in the environment. We are seeing temperatures that, in our elders’ lifetimes, we have not reached. It hasn’t been this hot this many times a year.”

Another piece of land near the Valley Fire zone is owned by Lions, Tigers, and Bears, a sanctuary for formerly injured or abused big cats and bears. Located in Alpine, California, eight miles east-southeast of the Viejas Kumeyaay reservation land off of Interstate Highway 8, the sanctuary is even closer than the reservation to the Valley Fire perimeter.

The sanctuary’s founder and Executive Director Bobbi Brink told The Real News that she implemented a “stay-in-place” policy for most of the animals on site, putting them in a trailer to prepare for a rapid evacuation. Some non-exotic animals such as horses were temporarily evacuated, even though fires did not ultimately encroach upon the sanctuary’s land.

“Normally we live in the best region in the country for these animals,” said Brink. “They don’t have to be locked up for months out of the year like some places for the weather. So this is really opportune climate normally, but there are the few days that we’ve all got to suffer.”

The animals, Brink added, adjusted well to the heat wave in the days preceding the Valley Fire.

“You know, they’re smarter than us and they actually all did really well,” she said. “So, a lot of times, you’ll see they’ll go into the pool. And they’ll kind of lower their body temperature and then they’ll lay in the shade and the concrete, or in a wet spot on the grass. and they’ll sleep it off. So all of our animals did really just fine and in the heat.”

For those living on the reservation in the age of the climate crisis, Christman advised viewing wildfires as invitable and preparing accordingly.

“If we were living on the outside, I think the mindset’s a little different. You kind of do just focus on maybe your own, your own home or your own family,” Christman said. “And so we do that as a community and we do that as a community leading up to fire season, not when the fire is happening, but prior because we know it’s going to come. It’s not about if the fire is going to come, it’s about when is the fire going to come because it’s going to happen.”

Steve Horn

Climate Change Reporter

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.