Native American Firefighters Of The Southwest - Part 2

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.

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.

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.

"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.

The largest industrial park of any Indian reservation is located here. Hazardous materials operations in the park consist of aluminum, hazardous gas and machine explosives manufacturing as well as trucking and storage operations. Also located on the reservation are an estimated 255 illegal dumpsites.

A recent fire involved millions of tires. The fire was eventually contained, buried under a thick layer of dirt, but continues to smolder under that covering to this day.

Committed To Service

The department's mission statement says, "The Gila River Fire Department is committed to providing the highest level of public service to all of the people within our community. We are committed to the protection of life and property through rapid intervention in emergencies, the prevention of fire and the development progressive public education and code enforcement programs. We will build and maintain community trust by holding ourselves to the highest standards of professional performance, education, and ethics. We strive to continually serve the people of our community with the motto 'A Concern For Others.' " (This motto is emblazoned onto the front of all GRFD fire apparatus.)

William "Bart" Beckwith has been chief of the GRFD since 1993. He is a 38-year fire service veteran who started out as a volunteer firefighter in Southern California. He later was a paid firefighter in the Chicago area and a military firefighter. Beckwith was the first paid fire chief in Chandler, AZ, serving from 1974 to 1993 before becoming the GRFD chief.

Beckwith is also president of the newly organized Native American Fire Chiefs Association.

"This is a new and energetic organization with 14 members," Beckwith said. "We are actively looking for fire service people to become members. And you don't have to be a Native American, either. There are about 1,500 Native American tribes and we are trying to network with them all to share information and increase the association's membership. The association has a newsletter called 'Smoke Signals.' I believe that Native Americans should be afforded every opportunity for jobs, especially on their own reservations. The fire service is one way to help them get jobs."

Busy Times & A Bright Future

According to the GRFD's annual report for October 1997-September-1998, the department responded to 2,055 incidents, of which 34 were structural fires; 162 vehicle fires; 140 grass, brush and woods fires; 224 EMS calls; 389 motor vehicle crashes; 474 lockouts and numerous other incidents. Dollar losses totaled $1,428,400. Nearly 8,300 training hours were logged, and public education activities were attended by 7,819 people. The department also performed 234 inspections.

The Gila River and its fire and rescue personnel pledge to work hard to keep pace with the area's phenomenal growth. They are "committed to providing the highest level of public service and have 'A Concern For Others.' " The future looks bright for this department and its employees now and in the next millennium.

For additional information contact the Gila River Fire Department, 5002 N. Maricopa Road/P.O. Box 5083, Chandler, AZ 85226 (telephone 520-796-5900/5909).

Native American Wildland Firefighter Dies In Line Of Duty

Native American Wildland Firefighter Gregory Pacheco, 20, died in the line of duty on Oct. 5, 1999, as a result of massive head trauma. He was struck by a falling boulder two days earlier while working at a nearly 8,000-acre wildland fire on the La Jolla Indian Reservation near the Cleveland National Forest in California. Firefighter Pacheco was a member of the Penasco Five Wildland Hand Crew from the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. Another Native American wildland firefighter from the same crew was less seriously injured in the incident, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at