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.

A typical initial attack response during fire season is the Helitack crew, five wildland engines, two bulldozers, the Hotshot crew and several Type 2 hand crews. His Helitack crew can also be dispatched to anywhere it is requested - members once spent 45 days fighting fire in Washington State.

During fire attack, the chopper also transports equipment and shuttles other firefighters, performs medevac, and drops water or Class A foam from its "Bambi-Bucket." The helicopter is a Bell 201 L-3 Long Ranger type. There are 175 constructed/established heli-spot landing areas on the sprawling Mescalero reservation.

Prevention & Mitigation

Throughout the reservation an active wildland and wildland/urban interface fire prevention program is taught in schools, presented at fairs and rodeos, and offered to civic groups. A fuels-management program is also ongoing as a fire prevention tool. This program involves the use of mechanical equipment to thin dense stands of brush and trees, providing fire breaks and defensible spaces around structures.

Putting "fire on the land" or prescribed fire is another method of reducing fuels. The goals for this year's fuels management program are to mechanically remove (treat) 3,000 acres and removal, by burning, of 10,000 acres of fuels.

Aggressive fire attack and a comprehensive fire prevention program are essential to protect the Mescalero's valuable and beautiful timber resources as well as protecting its tribal population.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The 26-member Fort Apache wildland engine crew staffs 10 wildland engines and four large water tenders. All engines are equipped with Class A foam systems.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Heavy smoke and flames are seen moving into this subdivision on June 11, 1999, during the "Rainbow Fire."

Fort Apache Reservation

It was time to continue on and we proceeded to the Fort Apache reservation at Whiteriver, AZ, about 200 miles northeast of Phoenix. This is the home base of the White Mountain Apache tribe and one of the few remaining all-female Native American wildfire hand crews.

Elevations run from just over 5,000 feet up to 11,500 feet on the higher mountain peaks. The area is famous for its dry, sunny weather, picturesque mountains and lakes, and huge tracts of ponderosa pine forests. Summer cabins, year-round homes and resorts are scattered throughout the pristine forests, creating severe wildland/urban interface fire challenges for the local municipal fire departments, tribal fire services and the Indian wildland fire crews.

The reservation covers 1.6 million acres, of which 600,000 acres are considered as timber resources that must be aggressively protected from wildfires. Three fire lookout towers are staffed providing early detection and warning of wildfires. There are 13,000 tribal members residing at Fort Apache. Rapid, orderly evacuation of residents and vacationers is a priority with the fire services and law enforcement should a fast-moving wildfire begin.

Primarily, the local Native American crews provide wildland fire protection. They are augmented by crews from the U.S. Forest Service, the Arizona Lands Department and the local municipal fire departments that surround the reservation.

White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue

Located within the reservation is a full-service fire department called the White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue Service, led by Fire Chief Paul D. Kuehl. Forty-five personnel staff the department - 10 are full time and 35 are paid-call firefighters who are predominantly Native Americans. They staff 14 pieces of fire apparatus housed in three stations. This department protects an area of 360 square miles. In 1998, it responded to 820 calls.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Members of the White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue Service.

Given the wildland and wildland/urban interface surroundings, this fire and rescue service is well prepared and its members are crossed-trained and cross-equipped for wildland and interface fires. A "Fire Mobilization Plan" was recently established and includes all of the 14 municipal fire departments within what is called the "Rim Fire Association," the U. S. Forest Service, the BIA and the Arizona Lands Department.