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.

An "Emergency Evacuation Plan for Urban Interface Wildfires" was also recently implemented. This plan defines the operational requirements for the Fort Apache Agency Branch of Forestry, the White Mountain Apache Fire & Rescue and the White Mountain Apache Tribal Police for the evacuation of the public when threatened by wildfire. Coinciding with this plan is the BIA"s "Urban Wildland Interface Pre-Fire Plan." This extensive plan also includes pre-fire planning for all of the 29 subdivisions and populated areas on the reservation; a dispatchers' check list; incident commander's checklist; air operations guidelines; initial attack action plan for interface fires; communications frequencies; special considerations; hazardous materials and the incident command system (ICS). The intent of these plans is to effect a rapid and efficient warning and response to major wildfires or structure fires and other hazardous events.

These plans were put to the test on the afternoon of June 11, 1999.

The "Rainbow Fire"

A wildland and wildland/urban interface fire began a few miles to the north of Whiteriver, burning through one subdivision and directly threatening several others. Most wildland fires are named; this fire was designated the "Rainbow Fire."

Photo by Robert M. Winston
This fire destroyed 17 homes, some outbuildings and some motor vehicles as it burned through about 4,500 acres of Pine Forest.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Structural firefighters perform "structure triage" and get ready as the 4,500-acre "Rainbow Fire" crests over the ridge of a development on June 11, 1999.

Hot, dry conditions and strong winds caused the fire to quickly consume nearly 4,500 acres of timber and brush. Flame heights of 400 feet were reported. Several hundred people were efficiently evacuated by personnel following the evacuation plan, but the fire burned at least 17 homes before being contained. The column of smoke rose to an estimated 20,000 feet and was visible for many miles in all directions.

An estimated 800 firefighters from Arizona, New Mexico and California joined the Whiteriver-area fire services in combating this fire. Numerous structural engine strike teams responded for structure protection and many structures were saved by the heroic efforts of these firefighters. Wildland firefighters and air support stopped the forward advance of this dangerous fire within 24 hours, with overhaul and mop-up continuing for several days. This was a "human-caused" fire that had the potential of reaching catastrophic levels.

In Conclusion

Past history described them as "warriors" who bravely fought in wars to protect their people, homes, lands and way of life. Today, they are known as "fire warriors" and are dedicated to protecting not only their own, but they protect our nation's valued resources and other people's properties.

It has been nearly 50 years since the first organized Native American wildland firefighting crews entered the world of firefighting. Individuals and crews have faced some struggles along the way. They have also fought many battles against uncontrolled wildfire. Some have made the "supreme sacrifice," not unlike their brother and sister structural firefighters.

There are many stories of heroics among these very unique and courageous firefighting crews. They maintain a long and proud firefighting tradition that reflects in a most positive manner upon themselves, their families and all Native Americans. May this great tradition continue on for generations to come and that the "old ways" are not forgotten along this path.

On The Front Lines Women Wildland Firefighters

It was only about 25 years ago that Native American women started to actively participate in wildland firefighting. They boldly joined and mixed with the all-male crews and gained acceptance due to their abilities as very capable crewmembers. There are many stories told of the bravery and stamina of these women.

Some of these women started out in the more "traditional" roles on camp crews, working as dispatchers, timekeepers, equipment suppliers and in other non-hazardous yet essential jobs. Today, the women wildland firefighters have made their indelible mark in the world of fire. In fact, several all-female wildland fire crews have been established.

I interviewed the "Apache 8" all-female crew based at Whiteriver, AZ. They told me that a few men had joined their crew, but left because they could not keep up the physically exhausting pace set by these women firefighters while working on the fire lines. (Maybe they were just kidding with me? These women had a good sense of humor!)

Some women firefighters have been able to show even greater skills and abilities than some of their peers and have advanced to join the men as Smokejumpers, Helitack crewmembers and/or becoming crew and squad bosses. As has been the case with the men, the women firefighters have not been given enough positive recognition for their services to their people and to this country. Thankfully, that situation is changing.