Native American Firefighters Of The Southwest

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.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
Members of the "Fort Apache-41" hand crew overhaul smoldering trees during the 850-acre "Whitetail Fire" on the Mescalero Indian Reservation in New Mexico.

I made contact with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID. The BIA was pleased with this idea and assigned me a Native American representative to coordinate this endeavor with several Indian tribes in New Mexico and Arizona. We chose the second week of June to travel in the Southwest because historically June is usually the most active period for wildfires in this area of the country.

This odyssey began at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation located about 120 miles east of Phoenix. From there we journeyed to reservations in Mescalero, NM, and to Fort Apache and Gila River, AZ. I quickly learned that these Native Americans were not only superb wildland firefighters, but many were also structural firefighters who were cross-trained to perform both firefighting functions.

It was a personal honor to me that Firehouse® Magazine and I were granted permission to visit these reservations and were provided with a staff member from the BIA's National Interagency Fire Center office in Boise. The staff member was Gail Pechuli, a Native American and a former wildland firefighter. She brought me to places where few journalists have been allowed to go and put a great deal of effort into assisting me with the production of this unique article.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston

I thank the Firehouse staff for their support and confidence in me to produce this story, a first for any fire service trade journal. And a special "tip-o'-the-helmet" to the BIA and to all of the Native American firefighters, who were most courteous and willing to give of their time to be interviewed and photographed. Without their cooperation, the production of this article would not have been possible.

The Fire Warriors And Fire

Native Americans, also known as Indians, are closely aligned to the basic natural elements of this world. The earth, weather, the heavens, water and fire are essential elements in the lives of Native Americans, who consider fire a source of joy. Fire is sacred and kindled before celebrations and rituals. Fire gives life. In the past, it was also used as a weapon of war to take life. It is used to purify, hunt with, cook with, clear land with and fire has a significant use in Indian religion.

The Indians were the first people to develop fire prevention and pre-fire programs by using fire to clear away combustible vegetation from around their villages, thus building a "defensible space" so their homes would not burn if approached by a wildfire.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston

The first "fire shelter" was reportedly deployed by a Sioux Indian in the early 19th century when this Sioux was about to be overrun by a wildfire. As the fire approached, he apparently wrapped himself up in a thick buffalo hide, which allowed the fire to pass over him without harming him. We know that the wildland firefighters of today carry the aluminized "fire shelter" as a means of survival if they are overrun by wildfire.

The First Indian Wildland Firefighters

The following information is excerpted from a paper produced by David H. Dejong of the Native American Research and Training Center:

It should be mentioned that today American Indian tribes hold the largest private source of commercial timber in the United States, and this holding exceeds 14 million acres. In 1909, the first funds were appropriated to establish the forestry division of the Bureau of Indian affairs.

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.

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 dfcwins@idt.net

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