Native American Firefighters Of The Southwest

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

Now, a strong economy and more vocational opportunities are increasingly causing changes on the reservations and within the ranks of the Indian wildland firefighting crews. The advent of casinos on Indian reservations and all the jobs that are in and around these casinos have created many less hazardous, less time-consuming and higher-paying jobs for the Native Americans.

Because of the new revenues generated by these casinos, many new full-time positions have been established in expanding fire/rescue/EMS departments on the reservations. This has caused many men and women wildland firefighters to leave their crews to become structural firefighters. While this is a boon to these fire departments, as they have a good supply of seasoned firefighters to hire, some wildland fire crew positions are unfilled. Established traditional fire crews are disappearing. Add to that the predicted governmental budget cutting and fire crews are going to start disappearing at an unprecedented rate.

Visiting The Reservations

The scheduled first stop was at the San Carlos Apache Tribe located about 125 miles east of Phoenix. However, the "Geronimo Hotshots" and the other fire crews stationed at San Carlos had responded to wildfires in New Mexico. It was decided that we would travel to the "Whitetail Fire," which was burning in heavy timber on the Mescalero Indian Reservation, New Mexico.

Upon our arrival at Mescalero, we reported into the main BIA forestry office for introductions, orientation and status report on the "Whitetail Fire." The column of smoke that was visible and the late-afternoon hour told me that I needed to get onto the fire lines ASAP for picture-taking purposes.

Unfortunately, I was not familiar with the protocols on Indian reservations. Permission had to be granted by the BIA, the local Indian tribe and the fire's incident commander before I could proceed onto the fire scene. This took a bit of time. To complicate matters, areas within the fire were considered sacred to the Indians, and no photographs are allowed to be taken of these locations. Any areas considered sacred at any fire scene on Indian land are identified and flagged in order to preserve and protect them. Not wishing to offend anyone, I opted to wait until the next morning, when I was checked in at the command post and a guide assigned to me.

We then proceeded to walk the fire's perimeter, which had grown to about 850 acres in size. Lines had been established around the fire and it was contained.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs sponsors:

Five "Hotshot" crews
200 "Type 2" hand crews
75 camp crews (10 persons)
Over 200 engines
18 Indian Helitack crews

35 Alaskan Indian crews are sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management.

25 Southwest Indian crews and 12 Oklahoma Indian crews are sponsored by 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