Fire tore through the Karuk tribe’s homeland. Many won’t be able to rebuild

Vivian Ho in Happy Camp, California
·11 min read

Disaster came for the small mountain community of Happy Camp, California, on an unseasonably warm morning in September.

The Slater fire raged through the ancestral heart of the Karuk tribe in the Klamath Mountains near the Oregon border on 8 September. The tribe, known for its deep knowledge of cultural burning and forest management, saw almost 200 homes in the community of 1,000 go up in flames.

Related: ‘We just had to get home’: the Californians who rebuild despite the danger of wildfires

In a historic fire season with million-acre gigafires and more than two dozen deaths, the destruction in Happy Camp barely broke through the long list of dire news stories making the headlines. But it has brought deep hardship for many who have long warned of fire seasons like this one.

Many who live in the Klamath Mountains were either unable to afford home insurance or unable to get it because companies are increasingly wary of insuring homeowners in some parts of the state amid intensifying wildfires. “I lost my insurance two years ago, after the Paradise fire,” said 60-year-old Happy Camp resident Flo Lopez. “I had a whole stack of denial letters from insurance companies, but I can’t prove that. Because those burned.”

More than a month after the fire and with residents still not allowed to return to their properties, the chance for this community with a native claim to California and a long history of tribal ecological fire management to rebuild to its full potential now seems more impossible than ever.

“We’re here because we choose to be here,” said Robert Perez, 34, who lost his ranch in the fire. “We have fresh water, our traditional knowledge, our culture, our ceremonies. It’s all right here and it’s where we want to be as people, right here raising our families. But a lot of these people are not going to have a choice but to relocate. It’s about to be wintertime and we are going to have all these homeless families with nowhere to go.”

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Happy Camp, the headquarters for the Karuk tribe, sits squarely in Klamath national forest, a curving, mountainous hour-and-a-half drive from the county seat of Yreka. Colors overwhelm the senses on the drive into town, with the lush green of the trees rising over the red earth of the mountains, and the leaves turning golden orange in the autumn sun.

The colors continue well into the town itself, with its cheerfully painted houses and towering statue of Big Foot (properly masked for Covid times). But a right turn up along Indian Creek and the colors fade into a gray wasteland.

The September fire sucked the vivacity from the landscape, leaving behind blackened, broken timber and charred ground. For weeks, the land here still smoked amid the mangled remains of homes crumpled by the roadside.

Flo Lopez and her husband have lived together on their plot of land for more than three decades, but her time here dates back much longer. Her grandparents owned it, and when she was orphaned at the age of five, they adopted her and her two siblings, and this land became her home. “We cleared that land, and helped Grandpa put in the well and septic and build the back porch,” Lopez said. “On the mountainside, there was a big rock that we would climb up as kids and paint it blue and we would call it Blue Rock. Every year, there would be four eagles that would fly in and stay there.”

Lopez and her husband are retired, don’t have insurance and only have limited savings. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “At our age and not working, I don’t know if we’re going to get a loan.”

In the days after the fire, Lopez said, she found herself wavering between jaunts of crying and determination. She keeps listing all that burned, trying to put a price tag on her losses, but then she thinks of the redwoods and walnut trees that her grandfather planted along the creek, and wonders if they survived. “My connection with the land, the land will get me personally through this,” Lopez said.

“I’m going to go back to my land, regardless if they let me or not,” she said. “That is my ancestral land. That is my grandparents’ land. They’re going to have to drag us off that land. Everybody is going to have to stand together, the ones who want to stay. My neighbors, we all want to rebuild. We grew up there together. Where else are we supposed to go?”

Both neighbors on either side of her, Lopez said, did not have insurance.

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The climate crisis, combined with more than a century of practicing fire suppression over traditional tribal land stewardship, has led to larger, more destructive wildfires. This year, California has seen more than 8,600 wildfires, including five that have burned enough acreage to earn a spot in the top 10 largest wildfires in state history. The million-acre August Complex fire is currently burning at a size nearing that of the state of Delaware. Experts predict this trend of more massive and more destructive wildfires will only continue over the next few years.

And with the more massive and destructive wildfires came issues with insurance. Home insurance rates in high wildfire risk areas have gone up significantly since 2016, when a drought allowed for a die-off of trees along the spine of the Sierra Nevada Mountainsso much so that some Californians saw their monthly house payments doubled, according to the advocacy group United Policyholders, and rural Californians.

My life, my whole life, my whole life’s savings, everything I’ve ever worked for was right there on that ranch

Robert Perez

“Insurance companies are highly sophisticated gamblers,” said Amy Bach, the executive director for United Policyholders. “They take on risk for money, and you, as a regular person, have a certain amount of risk in your daily life. You’re paying an insurance company to take that risk off of you. But if they get spooked, as they are now, it changes the dynamic.”

For some residents in these small, rural communities, many of whom are low-income, the cost and hassle of finding an affordable provider just isn’t worth it, especially when some insurance companies have refused to continue insuring Californians altogether in certain regions.

“A lot of insurance companies won’t cover you because you live in a wildland fire zone,” said Robert Perez, whose ranch was not insured. “You’re not in any fire district. You don’t have city water. There are all these issues with the state of California and the way that the insurance companies work that for a lot of people, it’s next to impossible to get fire insurance and be able to afford it. I couldn’t even find anything that would cover the place.”

Like so many others in his situation, Perez has no idea what he’s going to do. “My life, my whole life, my whole life’s savings, everything I’ve ever worked for was right there on that ranch,” he said.

In Happy Camp, a town in the middle of the forest with one grocery store, one liquor store, and one pizza house, the impact of the fire has been devastating, given the community’s size. Half the people in town are homeless. Half the staff for the Karuk tribe are homeless, making operations difficult to manage. Displaced residents are still not allowed to return to their burned properties.

The tribe has spent $4m on temporary travel trailers for residents who have lost their homes, and the Karuk Tribal Council was hoping a Fema major disaster declaration would bring in funds for residents to begin debris removal, said the council chair, Russell Attebery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) last week denied the disaster declaration, keeping the residents of Happy Camp from those much-needed resources. On Friday, however, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that Donald Trump appeared to have reversed that decision.

Many town residents see their current suffering as just the latest “kick in the teeth” from a government with a long history of disrespect for their cultural knowledge of prescribed fire and forest management.

The Karuk do not have a reservation like other tribes. Their tribal lands fall largely within two national forests, the Klamath and Six Rivers, and there is mistrust between some members of the tribe and the US Forest Service. “From the tribe’s perspective, the forest service is an occupying force. The forest service is managing the Karuk land, and the forest service criminalized tribal culture in a lot of ways,” said Craig Tucker, a natural resource policy consultant. The forest service made it illegal to light fires, a culturally sacred practice to the Karuk tribe, except under narrow circumstances.

People in this community have always had to figure out what to do with what they had and survive

Erin Hillman

“Their lack of respect for anything about this land goes back before just this one wind event,” said Erin Hillman, a 56-year-old Happy Camp resident. “It goes back decades of not caring about whether they’re managing this forest properly, not listening and caring about the community and tribe and the people who know and who have been here forever, who know how to make sure the whole place doesn’t burn up.”

On a recent October afternoon, Hillman called out for her cat Bobby at the edge of her burned property. It had been more than four weeks since she and her husband, Leon, had to flee without the cat, flames licking at the bumper of their car. Each time they had a chance to return to their home, she held out hope that he was still alive.

Erin remembered another wildfire a few years back that affected some of the Karuk community in nearby Orleans. Working for the tribe then, she had gone door to door to help evacuate people, seeing the look of “overwhelming helplessness” on their faces. Now, she understands it.

There’s a resilience that exists in isolated, rural outposts like Happy Camp that Erin doesn’t think exists elsewhere. “People in this community have always had to figure out what to do with what they had and survive,” Erin said. “Since the early 90s, when the logging industry left, the mills shut down, the community got a lot smaller. You have to plan everything. You can’t just run to the Walmart.”

A lot of that meant turning to each other within the community. When the Hillmans first moved into their home in 1996, a storm swept through, bringing fears that Indian Creek, which ran behind their property, would flood. Their neighbors across the way invited the family over, said Leon, 53. “We sat there all night with them,” he said. “These folks, they were a lot older. They were taking care of us.”

Now, amid the ashes of their home, they wondered how they can in turn care for the neighbors of this age. The Hillmans know they’re among the fortunate ones – they had insurance, albeit insurance that went up in price like most others in the region. “Some of these guys, they’re really up in age,” Leon said. “To know they’re talking about not having any insurance, and that they worked at the mill their whole lives with no pension, and that they don’t have anything – there’s no way of recovering at all.”

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More than anything, Hillman mourns the history that was lost in the fire. The community had grown so used to false alarms that nobody had prepared to evacuate for real. Her husband’s regalia – otter hides, elk hides, wolf hides, deer hides, necklaces, bow and arrows – all gone. Baskets, which the Karuk are famed for, some more than a century old, some that had once held their children as babies – now ashes.

It’s difficult to talk about rebuilding when many refugees can’t even return to say goodbye to what they’ve lost. Attebery is adamant that a conversation around rebuilding Happy Camp cannot begin without a conversation around fire ecology. He hopes measures like tree removal would not only make Happy Camp more fire safe but provide opportunities and jobs for residents who direly need it. “You take care of the forest and it will take care of you,” he said.

But whether community members will be able to remain is unclear amid the insurance woes. Residents say this financial reality is especially heartbreaking, given the community’s connection to the land and forest. “My family has lived on this river since time began,” Leon Hillman said. “I have this feeling that I can’t go anywhere, and I don’t want to. We’re connected to this place. You’re glued to it. Leaving all that behind, it just feels impossible.”

Right before Flo Lopez left her family house for the very last time, she turned to her family pictures and promised that she’d be back. Those pictures – including the only photo she had of her deceased parents – are now gone. The house is gone. But she will be back.

“I can’t let my ancestors down, the ones who fought for that land,” Lopez said. “I have to stay strong for my ancestors.”