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Tribe works to save ancestral land from fire

Sheila Gardner
Darrel Cruz
ALL |

To the casual observer, the broad flat rock covered with red slurry looks like just another piece of evidence of the efforts to extinguish the Angora fire.

Closer examination shows indentations in the rock revealing it is a grinding stone from the prehistory of the Washoe tribe’s aboriginal homeland at Lake Tahoe.

This is the kind of cultural damage assessment in which Washoe tribe environmentalist Darrel Cruz specializes.

With more than 25 years experience fighting wildland fires and his training as an environmental specialist, Cruz, 47, is one of the few people in the United States who can be in front of firefighters’ bulldozers as they race to build a suppression line around a raging wildfire.

His work is critical to protect archeological sites.

When the devastating Angora fire broke out June 24, Cruz reported to the site.

“Within a few days of the fire, I went up as a resource adviser to protect the archeological monitoring. I was looking for any disturbance of the sites during the (fire) line construction,” Cruz said.

Cruz found two sites which needed attention.

“I walked around the line and inspected sites that might have been uncovered or destroyed during the suppression process. One was a prehistoric site with petroglyphs and grinding rocks. The other was in a little meadow with the fire line pushed right to the edge,” he said.

Since Cruz is also an experienced wildland firefighter, he understands the potential for conflict between his work to protect the sites and the priorities of firefighters attempting to contain the raging wildland fire.

“I am one of the few people in the United States allowed to do this,” he said. “We would like to prevent destruction (of the sites), but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I’ve been in front of the ‘dozers and tell them to go around an area when it’s possible.”

Cruz and tribe environmental program coordinator Marie Barry plan to be involved in the Burned Area Emergency Response team to assess damage from the 3,100-acre fire and implement rehabilitation.

The U.S. Forest Service has closed the burned area through Nov. 30. All trails and roads leading into the burned area on forest system lands are closed to the public.

The Burned Area Emergency Response team was to begin its assessment of the burned area on Friday, focusing on emergency stabilization of the watershed.

“We make recommendations and review the plans, not just for the archeological resources,” Cruz said.

The team looks at all aspects of rehabilitation including forestry, hydrology, fisheries and other resources.

“The water quality is of the highest importance,” Cruz said. “That’s part of the reason the rehabilitation starts immediately.”

The area of the Angora fire has special significance for Cruz. As members of the Hung A Lel Ti (southern band) of the tribe, his ancestors lived at the southern end of the lake, close to the fire’s perimeter.

Cruz, a member of the James family, grew up in Woodfords.

He said his aunt was born at Camp Richardson.

“It goes back a long way,” he said. “My family lived up there, my aunts and grandparents would talk about it. We picnicked and camped up there many times. Everybody still views it as Washoe.”

Cruz and Barry said the Washoe tribe, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have worked to build a strong relationship.

“It really helps when fire crews are briefed about cultural resources prior to going out,” she said.

Firefighters from outside the area and other emergency personnel might be unaware that it’s illegal to remove artifacts like arrowheads which they could uncover in fire suppression. It might appear to be a small souvenir but to Cruz and the Washoe tribe, it’s irreplaceable.

“As soon as someone takes a piece of our history, it’s gone forever,” he said.


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