Native American Firefighters Of The Southwest - Part 2

Robert M. Winston concludes his report from the front lines as Native American fire crews face unique challenges.

The Mescalero Apache Hotshot wildland fire crew was established as a hand crew in 1986. It became a "Type 1" team after much hard work in only a year's time. The Type 1 designation indicates a 20-person hand crew with a supervisor, all of them highly trained, fully equipped, self sustaining on the fire scene and with no restrictions on firefighting operations.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Members of the Mescalero Apache "Type 1" Hotshot crew pose beside one of their two new International 4700 series crew buses. Each crew bus carries 10 firefighters plus equipment.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Mescalero Apache Helitack crew poses in front of its Bell 206 L-3 Long Ranger chopper. The crew consists of 12 wildland firefighters and a pilot. They make the initial attacks on all wildland fires on the reservation, drop water and Class A foam from a "Bambi-Bucket," and provide transport and medevac at incidents.

Type 1 crews are a primarily firefighting force and are considered a national resource. Each crew must meet minimum standards in the Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC) Operations Guide. They can spend up to 21 days working on any given fire. (A "Type 2" crew does not meet the experience, financing, training and travel requirements of a Type 1 crew.)

When not assigned to a fire, the crew members attend training classes that cover fire behavior, fire weather, suppression techniques, equipment operations, the incident command system, EMS and many other related subjects. Members maintain, sharpen and repair their firefighting equipment. They also clear brush away from designated structures, thus building "defensible space." The team is involved in clearing roads, maintaining fire breaks and prescribed fire/fuel reduction operations.

The crew is on regular duty five days a week, from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., unless assigned to a fire. Members are on call 24 hours a day, every day, and are ready to respond at all times during fire season.

Each working day starts off with early-morning physical training, which begins with a four-mile run (once a week this increases to six to nine miles), then involves a fitness course with pull-ups, sit-ups, etc.; weight training; and aerobics. The average age of crew personnel is 26.

The Mescalero Hotshots maintain a reputation of excellence among the many crews scattered throughout the country. One of the means of gaining such a reputation among these types of crews comes from the amount of fire line they cut by hand at wildfires and the amount of time it takes to accomplish this arduous task. This crew always earns top scores on its "crew evaluation" forms at the completion of fire assignments.

Leland Pellman is acting superintendent of the Mescalero Hotshots. His career spans 23 years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and he has been on both Type 1 and Type 2 fire crews. Pellman said he plans to maintain a high level of readiness and morale as well as the outstanding reputation of his crew.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Mescalero Apache Hotshot crew's daily morning workout consists of a run, weight training and other exercises.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Mescalero Apache wildland engine crewmembers pose with their apparatus. Twenty-six firefighters staff five engines and a water tender. Last year, they responded to more than 200 fire incidents.

Mescalero Apache Helitack Crew

The Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation is protected from wildland fires from the air as well as via ground suppression forces. Air protection is accomplished by the Mescalero Apache Helitack crew, a technically skilled group of about a dozen wildland firefighters and pilots.

John Montoya is the "helo manager" and has been with this crew since 1988. When the Helitack crew is dispatched to a report of smoke, Montoya is usually the first firefighter to arrive via the chopper along with one or two other firefighters and the pilot. Montoya becomes the initial incident commander and sizes up the fire situation. He determines initial attack ordering of crews and other equipment, gives a report to central dispatch on the fire's size, fuels in the area, terrain, access, weather and other pertinent information.

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