|Story published at magicvalley.com on Saturday, July 28, 2007|
Last modified on Saturday, July 28, 2007 12:04 AM MDT
William Whiterock, engine boss for the Sho-Pai fire crew in Owyhee, Nev., takes a break Thursday at the incident command post in the tribal gymnasium. A strong community effort led the town out of the crisis with minimal damage as Owyhee experienced an eight-day power outage after the Murphy Complex fire destroyed 240 power poles.
Hundreds of water bottles stacked along either side of the hallway at the command post seem to scream crisis. But on this Thursday morning, after generators bring power back to the village, the smiles and laughter of volunteers say otherwise.
"My thought overall was that we'll be OK," says Yvonne Powers, editor of Sho-Pai News, a monthly Owyhee publication. Powers sits at a folding table and types the last words on a press release.
She speaks of cool-headed leaders and determined volunteers who worked nonstop over the past week to prevent disaster in the community.
"It's cultural: People taking care of people, neighbors helping neighbors, families helping families," Powers says of the response to a power outage that lasted for eight days. The Murphy Complex Fire, the nation's largest wildfire this summer, burned almost 240 power poles on Bureau of Land Management land that touches the reservation's eastern edge.
In a time of crisis people can lose control and societies can collapse. But here, it is the strength of neighbors and kin that solidifies a small, resilient community, locked in by miles of wilderness.
Along Idaho Highway 51 and Nevada Highway 225, a rich palette of gold, green and brown stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see. And as the asphalt rolls over hills and dips into dry streambeds, a sense of solitude emerges upon entering Owyhee, a town of about 1,500 people on the Idaho-Nevada border.
Signs posted in the sea of sagebrush tell travelers they're surrounded by open space and little else. The nearest communities are at least an hour away, and through traffic is almost nonexistent.
It is this high desert landscape that the Shoshone-Paiute tribes call home. Some historical accounts report that when Polynesian explorers came through Owyhee, at the base of a hillside covered in volcanic rock, they were reminded of home.
"They say that Owyhee is the name of an ancient Hawaiian king," says Shoshone-Paiute Tribal Chairman Kyle Prior. And in the middle of a desert filled with sagebrush and wild grass, Prior agrees his community is like a small island - but only in location.
"We've had to deal with the remoteness and isolation for years," he says. "And the valley is really fruitful with medicinal plants, and ranching is still a part of our everyday life."
Prior is quick to note that while vast desert separates the tribe, the nation reached out to his people with much-needed aid. During its eight-day crisis without electricity and water, Prior says, the community has seen tremendous support from tribes across the nation, the military(Army Thursday night), National Guard and communities on either side of the Idaho-Nevada border.
But Prior says what really kept the community intact was the resilience of its own people. "The core of our help had to be ourselves," says Prior, who saw his community work overtime to ensure the well-being of its most fragile citizens.
"We're out here in the wilderness and we just know how to live in nature," he says.
"The majority of our people understand that this is Mother Nature," says Prior, "but when we were finding out about power poles (being burned down), everybody started getting nervous."
Though power has been restored to the community, everybody still has to be frugal, keep water on hand and stock up on ice.
Tribal Vice Chairman Robert Bear took the lead at the incident command post when the emergency began. Bear says he's grateful that the tribe is through the worst of the crisis, but the end has yet to arrive.
"Even though the generators are hooked up, we still have to conserve. We're not out of this yet."
GRAVE NEWS FROM THE FIRE STRICKEN DUCK VALLEY INDIAN RESERVATION
Si Young Bear Thomas of the Shoshone-Paiute
Carlos Guevara( He's a regular contributor to the Native Vue http://www.nativevue.org/
forum& guest blog as well)....