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.

"Apache 8" Wildfire Hand Crew

The "Apache 8" is an all female Type 2 wildfire hand crew consisting of about 20 personnel, including its crew boss and several squad bosses. These women are dedicated to protecting their reservation and its people, property and timber resources. Many of the crewmembers are the wives of wildland firefighters, as well as dedicated mothers with children. They are amazingly physically fit and love to fight fire. The "Apache 8" crew enjoys a well-earned reputation of excellence in the world of wildland fire.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Some of the female Native American wildland firefighters setting up camp during the Whitetail fire.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Some members of the "Apache 8" all female Native American type-2 wildfire handcrew pose beside their crew transport. The unit is stationed at the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, AZ.

Cheryl Bones is the "Apache 8" crew boss. She has been its crew boss since 1980 and has been a wildland firefighter since 1975. She has three children and says that she "loves firefighting, its challenges, working outdoors, meeting different people while on assignments away from the reservation and traveling with the crew. The crew has been to fires throughout the western U.S. and as far east as Tennessee and Mississippi."

Bones recalled one memorable fire where she and her crew had to drop their tools and run for their lives as a wall of fire suddenly changed direction and raced toward them. They later returned to where the tools were dropped and all they found were the ashes of the tools' handles.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Tish Susan, left, and Squad Boss Dean Caldera Minjarez are "Sawyers and Tree Fallers." They are part of the "Apache 8" all-female crew.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The "Apache 8" crew boss is Cheryl Bones, who has been a wildland firefighter since 1975 and a crew boss since 1980. She was chosen as one of the three models whose images will be cast in bronze for the Wildland Firefighter's Monument at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID.

Focus On Gila River Fire Department

The Gila River Fire Department (GRFD) is located on the Gila River Indian Reservation, which borders the southwestern edge of Phoenix. Serving a population of 19,000 residents living on 650 square miles of land, it is a tribal fire department staffed predominantly by Native Americans of the Pima and Maricopa tribes.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
GRFD Chief William "Bart" Beckwith is a 38-year veteran of the fire service. He also is president of the Native American Fire Chiefs Association.

The department was established in 1994 and it is fast growing in an area of Arizona that is also feeling the effects of rapid building expansion. This building boom is a direct result of a robust economy, population movement to a warm, sunny climate, and the continued growth of gaming casinos owned by Native American tribes.

Crews operate out of three fire stations housing six modern 1,250-gpm/1,000-gallon pumpers, one heavy rescue, one tillered 100-foot aerial ladder, one brushfire unit and two command vehicles. (Two new fire stations are under construction.) The department has 80 firefighters and officers, and the fire chief is looking to fill 40 new positions by the end of 2000. New fire apparatus will be ordered to meet the growing fire, rescue and EMS demands of the reservation. This will also include several state-of-the-art wildland/urban interface firefighting vehicles.

The area is home to the Firebird Racetrack, which attracts thousands of racecar enthusiasts on a regular basis. The GRFD provides fire, rescue and extrication support during events at the track. The raceway is across the street from the central fire station.

On the drawing boards are plans for additional hotels, motels, office parks, homes, strip malls and recreational facilities, including two 18-hole golf courses.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Gila River Fire Department's modern headquarters, along with some of its apparatus, personnel and the Gila River EMS ambulance crew.