Native American Firefighters Of The Southwest

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


For many years, I've had a desire to visit with and write about the Native American wildland firefighters of the Southwest. These firefighters have had little in the way of the public recognition that they so justly deserve. Photo by Robert M. Winston Members of the "Fort...


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Some of the events that led to the organization of (Native American) firefighting units began during the era of President Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s. In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established. Within the CCC there was an Indian Division that may have had a significant impact as far as the eventual organization of American Indian firefighters. Over 88,000 Native Americans were employed in the CCC Indian Division. A number of fire prevention measures were adopted, 100 fire lookout towers were erected, 600 fire cabins were built and 7500 miles of telephone lines were strung on reservations that had timber resources. Thousands of miles of trails were constructed to gain access to areas that could be engulfed in fire. The CCC was terminated in 1942 and this ended the CCC's Indian Division.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
A Native American firefighter operates his "Dozer" at the 850-acre "Whitetail Fire."

After World War II, tourism and the use of automobiles increased along with more roads being constructed into woodlands. This increased the risk of wildland fires. In 1949, some 134,000 acres of Indian timber were burned in the southwestern United States.

In 1948, Bert Shields, a BIA forest manager at the Mescalero Apache Reservation, sent out word that he was seeking to organize a trained American Indian fire crew to fight fires, particularly at Mescalero. Nineteen men responded to Bert's call. Most of them were World War II veterans. The group called themselves the Mescalero Red Hats. They were the first organized Native American wildfire crew and led the way for the creation of other highly skilled firefighting crews.

In 1949, the Red Hats were called by the U.S. Forest Service to fight a fire in the Lincoln National Forest, which was off the reservation. In 1950, the Red Hats won acclaim for their service during several fires in New Mexico. It is said that the Red Hats, along with the Zuni and Santo Domingo fire crews, were among the firefighters that discovered the little bear cub whose paws were burned in a forest fire. The bear cub became, of course, the famous "Smokey the Bear," as it was then named. Today we know it as "Smokey Bear."

In 1949, the Hopi Indians organized a trained firefighting crew; two years later, the Zuni Indians did the same. In 1954, the Red Hats and the Zuni Thunderbirds received meritorious service citations for firefighting from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During 1953-55, Native American crews were formed in Montana from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Flathead, Rocky Boys, and Forts Belknap, Peck and Hall reservations. In the mid-1950s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also organized crews from among Alaska Natives.

Modern Indian Fire Crews

According to Steve Haglund, director of the BIA's National Interagency Fire Center, "Indian wildland fire crews and overhead (management) team members remain the backbone of the national wildland fire suppression effort. Since 1992, Indians have accounted for about 21 percent of all firefighters working major wildfires in the United States."

Native American hand crews have been highly successful and enjoy an excellent reputation as topnotch firefighters. There are many reasons for their success. They are highly trained and well equipped firefighters; they love to fight fire; they espouse a deep sense of pride, tradition and esprit de corps; they are people of the outdoors and are well suited to the work, rarely complaining as gripping is a sign of weakness.

The recorded number of firefighter fatalities while fighting wildland fires is relatively low. This comparatively low number of line-of-duty deaths can be attributed to training, experience, excellent physical fitness and stamina and an inherent almost uncanny sense of danger.

Religious beliefs also play an important role in the great success of these firefighters. A medicine man or religious elder may sing songs of prayers and bless the fire crews before going on the fire lines. This can also instill a sense of protection and great confidence that further strengthens the firefighters.

Economic Factors Foster Change

In the past, many Native American wildland firefighters regarded firefighting as the "only job" that was available to them. And it was true. Economies were never great on the reservations; in many cases, people lived below the so-called poverty line. The firefighters' pay may have been the only way to obtain a steady cash flow for their families. And the position of wildland firefighter was filled only during fire season, which is roughly half of any given year. Most firefighters come from an economically deprived past. The income that they make from firefighting is of prime importance to them and their families.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Mescalero/Bureau of Indian Affairs Fire Department operates five structural engines protecting 461,000 acres. Its firefighters are cross-trained for wildland/urban interface, hazardous materials response, and high-angle and swiftwater rescue. This fire department helped to save 42 structures during the 8,000-acre "Chino Wells Fire" on their reservation in May 1996. Pictured are Firefighters John Lathan and Marlin Palmer with Fire Marshal Dale Webb, center.