Saturday, September 12, 2015, started out as a normal day for Jose Simon III, Chairman of the Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians of California Tribal Council, and then it got a little interesting for Jose:
I had a General Council meeting in the afternoon and was thinking about going to a football game later on. My plans changed after the council meeting, when I walked outside and saw a wildfire burning in the distance.
I spent the next few hours helping tribal members, checking on friends in the community and talking with officials from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Managing the response to a fire is a lot like governing a tribe and during the response we were allowed to show what we can do, the kind of work we do on a daily basis.
Although the Incident Command System was new to us, it is similar to the way we manage the Tribal Council, so we picked it up very quickly. The Twin Pine Casino & Hotel became an evacuation center and then an Incident Command Center. The Tribal Council’s marketing representative became a Public Information Officer and I went from being Chairman of the Middletown Rancheria to Incident Commander.
Once the fire was contained we opened the doors of the Twin Pine Casino & Hotel to survivors and their families and invited them to stay at the hotel free-of-charge.
On November 26, 2015, the Event Center was the site of the most meaningful Thanksgiving of my life when the tribe joined with the Santa Rosa Moose Lodge to provide a turkey dinner with all the trimmings to more than 400 survivors.
The Valley Fire, as it became known, raged for four days, burning more than 76,000 acres, destroying 1,281 homes and claiming four lives.
The council always had a good relationship with Lake County officials and with people in the community, but the fire strengthened that bond. As the fire raged on, they tried to assist as many people as they could.
As Lake County began recovering from the fire, the Event Center became the Lake County Recovery Task Force meeting place. Beginning in October, the task force got together every week to discuss issues, answer questions from the public and solve problems. FEMA was an important member of the task force.
“Although my home was spared,” Simon said, “I registered with FEMA so I would understand the process and encouraged other survivors to apply to FEMA and [U.S. Small Business Administration]. I also worked with folks from the Public Assistance program on a grant that the tribe is applying for and they were very helpful. I can’t say enough about the good people of FEMA.”
Every member of the Middletown Rancheria and all 265 tribal employees survived the fire, thanks to the council’s efforts.
Unfortunately, five families who lived off the reservation lost their homes as did 38 employees. Three of those families have decided to rebuild on the reservation. A young family with a one-year-old baby broke ground in early December and expect to move into their new home in mid-February.
As more families rebuild, on the reservation and throughout Lake County, the Middletown Rancheria will continue to be part of the recovery, and they are also getting ready for the future.
“Recently, the Tribal Council participated in Red Cross shelter training; if there is another emergency, the Event Center is now certified as an official Red Cross Shelter,” Simon shared. “In a crisis, it really doesn’t matter if it happens on tribal land or county land or private property, Middletown Rancheria is prepared to respond and to take advantage of every opportunity to help people.”