Now that the shock has worn off -- and people have had a chance to absorb the idea of a circus tent-shaped casino on a hill overlooking the Alexander Valley's celebrated vineyards -- Sonoma County officials are coming to terms with the power of Indian sovereignty.

Take county Fire Chief Vern Losh, who has been trying to inspect the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians' River Rock Casino since October 2002, when one of his deputy chiefs discovered a faulty fire pump on the property.

Losh cited tribal members for fire code violations. The tribe responded by barring him from the premises.

Losh sued. Now, both sides are awaiting a decision from a state court judge to determine whether the county's public laws can be enforced on Indian land.

As for county fire officials labeling the casino a potential fire hazard, tribal Chairwoman Liz Elgin DeRouen said: "We've passed every state and federal regulation required. . . . We are not obligated to report to the county. But we are not its enemy either."

A few months ago, county Supervisor Paul Kelley, who likes to call the casino "the monstrosity on the mountain," conveyed concerns to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office that the casino was violating the county's master plan, which preserves his district as a scenic agrarian corridor.

"I believe tribal gaming is the greatest threat to our constitutional liberties," Kelley said in an interview. "Our immediate problem is that under the tribe's compact with California, it is the responsibility of the state to regulate the casino. So, oversight is from afar in Sacramento, but the impacts are local -- and an anathema to local government."

He is still waiting to hear from Schwarzenegger on the matter.

In the meantime, casino-bound big rigs and busloads of gamblers from the San Francisco Bay Area, about 90 miles to the south, have been roaring through this haven of wineries and bed-and-breakfast inns nestled along the Russian River at a rate of one every 21/2 minutes. It has been that way since the casino started operating in September 2002.

"It's in the wrong place," said Candy Ladd, who owns 300 acres of premier chardonnay vineyards next to the tribe's 75-acre reservation. "It's clogging our two-lane roads with traffic, and ruining the ambiance with horns and sirens.

"We've always been a farming community, but I truly believe this whole valley is going to be owned by the tribe within 10 years," she added. "They're the winners. We're the losers. Our lifestyle will never be the same."

Whatever critics say about the casino, a growing number of local residents are becoming resigned to its existence; some have even become regular customers. And, because the tribe's fortunes are moving so fast, it has become a major regional financial donor almost overnight.

The casino is one of the few booming businesses in a region where jobs are in short supply, winery tourism has been in a slump and working-class people are being priced out of the housing market by new million-dollar chalets.

In 2003, the casino took in $69 million and generated an estimated $26 million in local wages. One of the largest employers in the area, it employs 550 people.

Its donations include $28,000 a month to the local volunteer fire department and $30,000 toward a political campaign to keep open the local hospital. A month ago, the tribe agreed to give the financially strapped Geyserville Unified School District $300,000 for the coming school year.

District Superintendent Joe Carnation said the gift means he will not have to cut programs or lay off three teachers next year.

"It's time to celebrate," Carnation said, "But not just about the money. Tribal members are just wonderful neighbors."

Yet, until recently, the 768-member tribe lived a desperate existence in the surrounding hills without adequate water supplies or roads.

"No one [cared] about us when our water ran out each summer, when 22 of our people were trapped without food or water in heavy rains one year, or when our kids couldn't get to school because of mudslides," DeRouen said.

Seated at the head of a gleaming conference table in her tribe's new headquarters, she said: "My main concern now is about what the casino can do for our people.

"Our needs are great," she said. "We need housing, employment, education, child care -- and to preserve our traditions, relations with elders, basket weaving and religion."

"We are not obligated to report to the county," said Liz Elgin DeRouen of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, at the casino near Healdsburg.