Northwest wildfires leave dozens homeless in remote Native American communities

Presbyterian pastor seeks help for families in need

August 19, 2015

Flames on the hillside pictured with Nekisa Fellowship Hall of the First Presbyterian Church in Kamiah, Idaho, on the right.

Flames on the hillside pictured with Nekisa Fellowship Hall of the First Presbyterian Church in Kamiah, Idaho, on the right. —Volkhard Graf

LOUISVILLE

Northwest wildfires have caused major problems for small, remote communities, prompting Presbyterian Disaster Assistance leaders to deploy a national response team to meet with the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest and the Synod of Alaska-Northwest. 

The town of Kamiah, Idaho, continues to battle flare-ups in the area as fires force dozens of families, including many Native Americans from their homes. The Rev. Luann Howard, pastor of Kamiah Community and Kooskia (Idaho) First Presbyterian Churches on the Nez Perce reservation, sent a letter to the presbytery, calling the devastation “massive and surreal”.

“Currently more than 50 families have lost their homes entirely, with many more suffering extensive damage—perhaps irreparable—to homes, out-buildings and property, and the fire is not over yet,” said Howard. “Citizens are keeping vigil at their homes and neighbors’ properties to be alert to any new flare-ups which occur frequently.”

Howard said that as long as the weather holds, they are hoping firefighters will regain more control over the fires.

In the meantime, she has met with local groups assisting and aiding families and has submitted a list of items that are needed immediately including clothes, bedding, toiletries and other items such as canned tuna, peanut butter and jelly, bread and more.

“The National Response Team is led by the Rev. Bill Neely, a long-time volunteer and experienced responder,” said Rick Turner, associate for Disaster Response with PDA. “Jan Spence and Barbara Mason, both NRT members, are joining Bill. The team will meet with presbytery leaders and then travel more than three hours to the areas affected by the wildfires.”

Once the PDA team has assessed the situation, the team will submit a report and recommendation to PDA leaders.

A map showing the Clearwater Complex of fires that includes the areas surrounding Kamiah and Kooskia, Idaho, on the Nez Perce reservation.

A map showing the Clearwater Complex of fires that includes the areas surrounding Kamiah and Kooskia, Idaho, on the Nez Perce reservation. —Incident Management Team

While dealing with the immediate needs, Howard is also looking at long-term recovery saying many people are seeking rental housing to get them through the winter since it will likely be next spring before they can return or rebuild their homes.

“They will need help with the usual things it takes to make a house run and they cannot do that without assistance,” she said. “We are a very economically challenged area. Most of our school children receive free or reduced school lunches. Our local credit union has stepped up to provide financial resources and establish an emergency fund to help, but it will not be enough.”

The wildfire season in the U.S. has been especially brutal this year with the National Interagency Fire Center reporting nearly seven million acres have been consumed by wildfires since January. The agency also reports that more than five million of those acres are in Alaska, often far from civilization.  The drier-than-normal weather is getting the blame.

Turner said he has been in touch with the appropriate church personnel in the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho as they battle wildfires. If the drought conditions continue, the wildfires will continue to rage.

Despite the problems, Howard reports God is with them in their remote community.

“We live in a great community and the stories that are beginning to emerge are miraculous. God has been so very merciful and gracious to us,” she said. “God’s presence is known in so many beautiful and amazing ways around here. What you hear on people’s lips is praise to God for what they have. I am humbled to serve God in such a place.”

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PDA is accepting online donations to assist recovery at the USA Disasters and Emergencies Fund. Donors may also mail their gift for the fund (DR000015) to Presbyterian Church (USA), P.O. Box 643700, Pittsburgh, PA  15264-3700 or call (800) 872-3283 to give by credit card.

  1. My daughter lives in Bellingham, WA and she took me last fall to the Bavarian Village up a Mt. Is this area threatened by the fires?

    by jean hill

    August 23, 2015

  2. If there is a family that is in a home but needs some furnishings, I have some to donate. Have help to deliver, also. I would like to help someone that has no insurance or means to recover without the assistance of donations..

    by Jeannie Hodges

    August 23, 2015