Linda Martinez, a 61-year-old tribal elder with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, has survived two fires that burned up most of her belongings in the past 15 years.
She and other Me-Wuk elders also remember the massive 2013 Rim Fire that burned more than 400 square miles and brought thousands of firefighters to the town of Tuolumne to protect tribal lands and unburned portions of the Stanislaus National Forest.
That’s why they are doing a donation drive this week to help victims of the deadly, destructive fires in Northern California right now.
The Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties has killed four civilians, including two children, and two firefighters, it’s destroyed more than 1,000 homes, 12 businesses and 435 outbuildings, and it’s burned up more than 180 square miles since a mechanical vehicle failure ignited it July 23.
The Mendocino Complex consists of the River and Ranch fires in Mendocino and Lake counties, where at least 10 homes have burned and 49 square miles have burned since it broke out July 27.
“I know how some of them feel, losing everything,” Martinez said Wednesday at the tribal health center in Tuolumne. “The first fire, in Tuolumne town, I lost everything. The second fire was on the reservation. The Red Cross helped me. Tribal people helped me too.
“You feel empty,” Martinez said. “It’s a big loss. I want to help these other people out because I know they would help us if we need it.”
Dennis Hendricks, 69, a Me-Wuk tribal council member, said he and other elders empathize with the ordeals fire victims up north are facing. They remember what it’s like to have the Rim Fire advancing toward them, to be living in a world of smoke and heat, and to have armies of firefighters in their midst, on tribal lands and camped at Westside.
“We know and understand the experience they’re going through,” Hendricks said. “This is our opportunity to pay back and do the right thing.”
Hendricks said Kevin Day, tribal chairman for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, works with other Central and Northern California tribal leaders on a regular basis. Some local Me-Wuk people have ties with tribes and others in locations up north including Redding Rancheria and Rolling Hills in and near the Carr Fire, and Middletown, Coyote Valley and Redwood Valley near the Mendocino Complex fires.
There are 44 tribal elders, age 55 and older, with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, and they want to help other fire victims up north, regardless of whether they are Native American or not, said Merilee Fisher, elders coordinator for the Tuolumne Band.
They are collecting donations through 6 p.m. Thursday, and they hope to fill a tribal bus with basic needs for people who have lost everything in the fires. Items they are accepting include socks, tennis shoes, flip-flops, underwear, bras, sleepwear, T-shirts, shorts, blankets and towels. Fisher said they ask that all donated items be new, and they need sizes to fit men, women and children.
Once the bus is full, Fisher said, she plans to leave at 6 a.m. Friday to drive the donations up north and deliver them to those in need. Organizers of the tribe’s “Stuff the Bus” donation drive are also accepting cash or check donations. For more information, call Fisher at (209) 770-7548.
Inside the tribal health center in Tuolumne, Me-Wuk elders Winona Mitchell, 67, Joan Bailey, 74, and Shirley Berg, 75, sat at a table and talked about why they are trying to help people up north.
“They need it,” Mitchell said. “They’ve lost so much. It breaks our hearts, all of us, to see the devastation. We just want to do what we can to help.”
Tribal member Daphne Day, 14, of Tuolumne, worked with other volunteers cutting the edges of a dozen new blankets to put fringe on them for fire victims up north. Day said she remembers having to pack up to prepare to evacuate during the Rim Fire, and she remembers she and her family having to wear particulate masks to protect themselves from the heavy smoke.
Mitchell, Bailey and Berg all remember the smoke and tension and fear they experienced in the 2013 Rim Fire. They also remember trying to help the army of firefighters who lived in their community to fight the Rim Fire. Sometimes they made cookies for the crews, and one time Mitchell and her niece Skye made 67 beef enchiladas for firefighters. Sometimes they went out and bought up quantities of new socks to give to firefighters.
Lately, spells of near-constant smoke and haze from the giant Ferguson Fire burning close to Yosemite National Park have served as reminders of hardships others are enduring to keep people safe, Mitchell said.
“We’ve had ash fall here,” Mitchell said. “From the Ferguson Fire.”
As of Wednesday morning, the Ferguson Fire had resulted in two firefighter fatalities and nine firefighter injuries, burned more than 98 square miles of watershed, destroyed one structure and continued to threaten more than 2,840 homes and other structures. The fire, which broke out July 13, was estimated to be 39 percent contained. Authorities in Yosemite, in conjunction with Cal Fire and the Forest Service, have closed Yosemite Valley to the public since last Wednesday through this Sunday.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.