August Complex Wildfire and the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California
On August 17, 2020, tropical storm Fausto moved across Glenn and Mendocino Counties in California. Lightning
from the storm ignited at least 13 fires. By August 24, the number of fires had increased to 37. According
media reports citing a U.S. Forest Service news update, by September 7, the fire covered over
340,000 acres and was only 24% contained. As the fire grew, evacuation
orders were given to individuals east of Covelo, California.
The merged fires became known as the August
Complex fire and burned nearly 1 million acres of land. The California Department of Forestry
and Fire Protection's (CAL FIRE) Top
20 Most Destructive California Wildfires confirms that the August Complex fire damaged 935 buildings
and killed one firefighter. An October 2020 San Francisco Chronicle article details how one
firefighter was killed and two others were injured in the line of duty. CAL FIRE reports the
August Complex fire lasted 86 days, from August 16 to November 11, 2020. At one point, the fire surrounded
Round Valley Indian Reservation on three sides.
The most critical initial barrier to managing the wildfire was jurisdictional questions about who was
responsible for fire management. A portion of the fire lay within the California Department of Forestry and
Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) district, while other parts of the fire were on National Forest land and thus
came under the jurisdiction of the National Forest Service (NFS). Additionally, as the fire progressed, it
threatened land under tribal jurisdiction, and the Round Valley Indian Tribes were consulted to protect
their natural resources. It took many weeks for these entities to sort out issues related to responsibility.
Local officials and healthcare workers managing the COVID-19 pandemic now had a second issue to manage:
fire-related health issues. Air quality problems caused by the smoke led to breathing problems as the valley
experienced dangerous levels of air pollutants on and off for weeks. Once the smoke moved into the valley,
it was there for several days until a western wind cleared the air. At times, smoke was so thick that
streetlights in the city of Covelo needed to be illuminated so that residents could see. Many residents used
flashlights to walk down the sidewalks during the day. The clinic administrator purchased more lighting for
the clinic parking lot to aid patients as they entered the clinic.
Due to the rapid growth of the fire and the fact that it surrounded three sides of the valley, residents
panicked. In addition to fearing for their safety and property, they feared for the safety of their animals,
especially horses. Residents frantically searched for a safe place to house their animals. Many people fled
to the coast to live in campgrounds until the fires were under control. Counselors were placed on high alert
at the healthcare center to care for individuals experiencing stress and trauma related to the fires. The
tribe also had timberlands that were close to the fire. The tribal administration brought in bulldozers to
put a ring around the timberland to protect the reservation's tribal timber stand.
CAL FIRE and the NFS managed the fire, and many residents evacuated. Leaving their homes and most of their
belongings behind, many drove to campgrounds on the western shore of California to wait out the fire.
Residents with livestock and animals searched for boarding facilities or sanctuaries that would temporarily
house their animals. However, most were unsuccessful.
Many residents experienced panic and anxiety over the uncertain future direction of the fire. While there
were some days when the wind shifted and the air cleared, many days in the three months had poor air quality
due to smoke. Residents were also anxious about their property. Looting had been reported in association
with other fires, and residents worried that evacuating might provide more opportunities for criminal
With the help of federal, state, and local agencies, the area sustained minimal property damage, and there
were no injuries or deaths within the community. After nearly three months, the fire was considered fully
contained on November 12, 2020.
While the health clinic had an emergency action plan in place, it was not specific enough and did
not account for compounding factors such as a pandemic.
CAL FIRE and the NFS were prepared to manage fires. However, they faced barriers as they worked to
coordinate with one another on a fire that overlapped jurisdiction.
CAL FIRE and the NFS eventually worked out jurisdiction issues and collaborated on a response.
However, minor jurisdictional issues arose regarding follow-up education with residents.
CAL FIRE and the NFS brought strike teams into Round Valley, and officials met with these strike
teams nearly every day for several weeks. In addition to discussing how the fires were being
managed, they provided education to residents on ways to keep the fire away from their homes and
Communication and education about fire management practices proved critical to mitigating the threat
of the fire. Continued education will ensure that residents are prepared in the event of another
Attention to indigenous fire management practices will also be helpful for future fire management. A
fire management plan based on indigenous practices will also assist residents to feel as if they
have some control, which could help reduce stress and anxiety and ultimately improve mental health.
Support from Outside Agencies
Once jurisdictional issues were addressed, help and coordination of efforts with outside agencies worked
effectively. CAL FIRE assisted in educating residents on backburning and on ways to eliminate fire hazards
on their property. Local, county, state, and federal officials offered support, and some visited the area.
Tribal leadership requested assistance from elected officials when personal protective equipment (PPE) ran
low. The response was rapid, and the clinic received supplies within two days. The health center also asked
for help from Indian Health Service (IHS) with a request for equipment. IHS responded rapidly and provided
air purifiers for the clean air rooms. With this support, the clinic was able to keep its focus on COVID-19
and continued to do a large amount of testing.
Breathing Rooms at the Health Center
The health center set up clean air breathing rooms. While many residents evacuated, some could not or would
not. Many residents took advantage of the breathing rooms at the clinic as a respite from the smoke. This
service was particularly important for residents who could not drive long distances to get out of the smoke.
Coordinate with CAL FIRE to Educate Citizenry
CAL FIRE provided valuable educational information to residents regarding fire hazards and ways to mediate
fire risk on their properties. Residents are now better prepared to manage another wildfire should it
threaten the area again.
Conflict Over Jurisdiction
One part of the fire started in the area of the state that CAL FIRE serviced. As it spread, it moved into
NFS land in the Mendocino National Forest. For weeks, CAL FIRE and the NFS discussed who had jurisdiction
over the fire. Meanwhile, the fire grew, and residents watched as the valley became surrounded by fire.
Healthcare and the COVID-19 Pandemic
In addition to the fire, the COVID-19 pandemic was continuing. Ill residents sought both testing and medical
care. Residents were also experiencing health-related issues due to smoke and poor air quality. Likewise,
mental health issues were exacerbated by concerns over personal and property safety. Providing care to all
patients put a strain on the local healthcare system.
Lack of Firefighting Resources
Because California was experiencing other wildfires at this time, firefighting resources were stretched
thin. Firefighters were dispatched from Utah and other parts of California, but the rapid growth of the fire
and its intensity made fighting it a long-term endeavor.
The health center was required by law to have an emergency action plan; however, the plan could have been
more detailed to meet the dual needs of the health center. One positive outcome of the fire was that it
provided the clinic with an opportunity to update and detail its plan. Onsite federal, state, and local
officials gave real-time input into the plan.
Law Enforcement Personnel Shortages
Since looting and vandalism had previously occurred in other fire areas close to Round Valley, many
residents expressed concerns over this potential problem. As many residents had evacuated the fire area,
this concern became even more pronounced. Unfortunately, law enforcement personnel were attending to other
fire areas and had only a certain number of resources to dedicate to Round Valley, making the residents feel
more vulnerable to these potential problems.
Clarity in Jurisdiction
While the Round Valley Indian Tribes did not have control over the issues related to jurisdiction, it is
important for communities to be aware of jurisdictional issues. Both CAL FIRE and the NFS manage wildfires
in California. While they may have different jurisdictions, fires know no boundaries, and there can be
questions about who is responsible for fire management when it overlaps in two areas.
practices related to timber and land management include controlled fires. Due to restrictions on
controlled burning by the Bureau of Indian Affairs related to the ongoing drought, tribal officials could
not do controlled burning. Consequently, there was more fuel to feed the August Complex fire.
Ask for Help
The interviewee noted that federal, state, and county officials were very helpful in supporting the clinic's
efforts to manage the fire and COVID-19. It is important that local officials reach out for assistance from
Plan for Managing Animals
Residents struggled to find sanctuaries for their animals. An animal/livestock emergency management plan
would assist residents and reduce anxiety in future disasters. This is particularly critical in rural areas
where livestock is abundant.
Plan for the Next Disaster
While no community members want to think about potential upcoming disasters, it is wise for communities to
prepare for them. Creating potential scenarios and emergency action plans will assist with quick and
effective responses should another disaster happen.
Informed, in part, by interview with
James Russ, Executive Director, Round Valley Health
Tribal Council President, Round Valley Indian Reservation
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural
Health Information Hub.