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JPA is first in California involving a Native American tribe

By Miriam Raftery

October 18, 2012 (El Cajon ) – The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and Heartland Fire Training Authority this week announced that they have entered into a historic Joint Powers Agreement (JPA). 

“This JPA finally allows Viejas to have a seat at the table and have a full and meaningful partnership with other fire agencies that we’ve worked with for years in a very productive way,” said Viejas Fire Chief Don Butz. “Ultimately, this benefits the entire region, since wildfires and other natural disasters do not recognize geographic, political or other borders. We are all stronger and better protected when we work and train together.”

Robert “Cita” Welch, tribal vice chairman of Viejas, called the agreement “important for all Native American tribes throughout California.” The agreement required passage of a state law, AB 307, to allow a federally recognized Indian tribe to be considered a public agency that may enter into a joint powers agreement. 

Before, Viejas was a contract agency for Heartland participating in training, but did not have a vote or authority to have a voice in budget and policy formation.  Other members of the Heartland Fire Training Facility include the cities of Santee, El Cajon, La Mesa and Lemon Grove; San Diego County; and the fire districts of San Miguel, Alpine, Lakeside and Bonita-Sunnyside. 

Heartland Fire Training Authority Chairman Dave Allan praised Viejas as a “vital player in emergency services” for people in our region, adding, “The Heartland Fire Training Authority welcomes the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and it is an honor to have them as a member of a Training Authority which is second to none.”

“This makes history. We’ve been waiting for years for this,” Viejas community relations director Charlie Brown said.  “We want to be known as a Fire Department….Now we’re on even ground with everyone else.”   The Viejas Tribal Fire Department has 21 professional-trained personnel who respond to structural fire and paramedic calls in Alpine and surround areas, as well as on tribal lands. 

Brown, a former fire jumper with the U.S. Forest Service, noted that the Viejas people have a long history of firefighting service and protection California from wildfires.  “We’ve made the best firefighting out of anything,”  he said.  “We’ve done this traditionally for 10,000 years.”  In the past, Native Americans used to conduct controlled burns in places such as Yosemite, he noted.  “Now they’ve had major fires, after they moved us all out.”

Heartland Fire Training Chief Paskle hailed the event as “historic” adding, “We believe this is the first time that a tribal agency has entered into a JPA.”

Robert Scheid, vice president of community relations at Viejas, told ECM that the new law has potential for tribes to entertain into a broad range of JPAs for other public services.  “Now tribes can go beyond fire  and form alliances or joint powers agreements for any services that government delivers,” he said, citing water services and law enforcement as  examples. 

Allan  hailed the agreement. “These are exciting times for fire safety,” he concluded, adding that the agreement has been seven years in the works. “The tribes help a lot of people.”

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