American Indians answer call to fight Western fires [with personal reminiscence]

Hunter Gray hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Thu Apr 11 09:11:18 MDT 2002


Note by Hunterbear:

It's about as egalitarian as any phenomenon in the Cosmos:  fire.

Fire doesn't give a damn about your race or culture -- or your politics.
And, unless you're talking about a friendly campfire or very carefully
controlled ecological burning,  fire is something to fight -- and you won't
give a damn about a fellow worker's background when you're all together
doing that.

I was barely into my mid-teens on a hot, dry June day -- a big kid
already -- when the A-I Mountain Fire exploded just west of my home town of
Flagstaff, Arizona.  Its huge column of smoke -- black from Ponderosa Pine
with a massive red base -- roiled and boiled.  An Anglo friend rolled up in
his dad's pickup at our out-on-the-edge  house.  "Let's go fight it," he
yelled -- and, grabbing my wide-brimmed hat, I joined him.

The Coconino National Forest fire headquarters on the northern edge of
Flagstaff was milling with guys of all ages and races. Interpreters were
working with non-English speakers -- many of them Navajo and Hopi and
Chicano.  My buddy and I were signed up fast by one of several men at
outdoor tables.  He looked at us from under his Stetson.  "You got to be 18,
boys," said he, adding suggestively,  "You sure look it."

We assured him that we were.  As we gave our names, a man signing guys up at
the adjoining table suddenly jerked and looked at us, grinning.  It was one
of our teachers, a  really great  person, who I suddenly remembered worked
summers for the Coconino.

He didn't blow our age cover.

Within minutes, a truck was taking us and others into combat -- very, very
dangerous combat.

By the time we got to the fire lines, the mushrooming  A-1 horror had
already destroyed over a thousand acres of Ponderosa Yellow Pine -- some of
which had taken hundreds of years in the dry Southwest to grow up.  We
stopped it just before it burned up Lowell Observatory, situated up on Mars
Hill, just above Flagstaff on the west.  By that time, lawmen were stopping
tourists on Highway 66 which went through town as Santa Fe Avenue, and
pressing any reasonably fit males into fire duty.

That launched one of my greatest work experiences -- and also one which
brought me into maturity very fast. I had tasted smoke, felt danger and
death -- and I worked the rest of that summer on various burns. Some were
massive.  No one cared about my race and ethnicity one way or the other.   I
was big and tough and fearless -- good with a Kordick [combination rake/hoe]
and with a Pulaski [combination axe/hoe] and great with a double-bitted axe
and crosscut saw. In some situations, where we dynamited trees to make super
quick fire lines in settings where Cats couldn't go, I proved my worth in
demolition  -- something that I did very effectively in other work settings
in the years that followed.

At the end of that summer, I was a fire vet -- and I'd made  far more money
than my peers who'd followed conventional mid-teen work stuff in town.  And
I'd learned that fire can be the great equalizer.  Everyone -- Native,
Chicano, Anglo, Black, Oriental -- gets sweaty-black from wood-ash and smoke
within minutes.

"Come back next summer," the Coconino fire dispatcher told me, "and we'll
put you on the regular summer payroll."  I did -- I was 18 again -- and 18
again another summer, until I was finally 18 in full reality. Then, not long
at all thereafter, I went into the Army -- and it was another time and
another world.

But long before that, I was handling fire lookout work -- initially
replacing one of the veteran lookouts, an old family friend, Bill Pratt -- a
Laguna from New Mexico -- when Bill took a few days off from his far up and
far away perch.  Then, with his strong recommendation, I had my very own
remote lookout: overlooking some of the most critical areas in the Coconino
National Forest -- along with an extremely complex radio set-up.

It was a high responsibility job -- couldn't have been higher. It would be
years before I could legally vote or  legally buy a drink.

And all over the West, there were Natives fighting fires.  Natives of all
tribes.  Long before I came along and long afterward -- right to the present
moment.

In those tough old days when I was growing up, many of the restaurants in
Flagstaff -- and in the other reservation border towns -- had signs:  "No
Indians or Dogs Allowed."

But I never saw those at any forest fire camp -- never did.  And never will.

Hunter Gray  [ Hunterbear ]
www.hunterbear.org  ( social justice )
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´

====================================

American Indians answer call to fight Western fires  [April 10, 2002]
BY TOM RAGAN The Gazette
LAKE GEORGE, Colo. - KRT NEWSFEATURES
http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/mld/ledgerenquirer/news/nation/3034670.htm

(KRT) - They drove a rickety yellow school bus through the night to get
here.
It took 12 hours, going 55 mph all the way. Nicknamed the "gutless wonder"
by
its driver, the bus barely made it up Ute Pass.

But the 21 members of the Oglala Lakota tribe made it in time to help
contain a
wildfire that started in the Pike National Forest last week in south Park
County.

When they left their homes on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest
South Dakota in the early evening, it was beginning to snow. Later, they
learned, it turned into a blizzard.

By the next morning, with only two hours of sleep, they were hefting shovels
and pickaxes, digging lines in the thick of the national forest, struggling
to
keep the 250-acre fire from spreading out of control.

On the reservation, they're mechanics, construction workers, security guards
and casino cashiers.

Here they're hardworking firefighters who've been called to duty by the
federal
government in a capacity that's similar to the U.S. Army Reserves. The only
difference is, they're protecting federal land, not defending their
country -
although sometimes the stakes are just as high. Property and lives have been
saved because of their efforts.

It's not uncommon for American Indians to fight forest fires across the West
during the summer. The U.S. Forest Service has relied on them for decades.
And
it's a highly coveted part-time job that pays as much as $16 an hour, a
princely sum compared with some of their jobs back home.

But it's not all about the money, they say. It's about getting off the
reservation once in a while, even if it means taking life-threatening risks
and
mixing it up with dangerous elements like wind and fire.

"We get to see parts of the country that some of us can only dream about,"
said
31-year-old Alan Backward as high winds fanned the flames of tiny fires
around
him.

In the late 1980s, Backward was so enthralled by the idea of fighting fires
he
lied about his age on an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs so he
could be shipped out immediately.

Since then, he's fought forest fires in every Western state except Nevada.

So has Felix Rodriguez, another American Indian firefighter called to the
Pike
National Forest wildfire. He's been battling flames for more than a decade.

When a wildfire began in the Okanogan National Forest in July last year in
Washington state, Rodriguez was among hundreds of firefighters sent.

"At one point, we were up so high we saw Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainer,"
said Rodriguez, 33. "A storm was coming in. We saw the sky change before us.
It
was beautiful. I don't think I'd ever been that high up before and seen
something that beautiful before."

Fighting fires, however, is about more than great scenery.

Wildland firefighters for the Bureau of Indian Affairs must pass basic
training, which includes strapping 45-pound packs on their backs and walking
three miles in less than 30 minutes.

A strong lower back is important because most of the time the crew is
stooped
over, digging lines, clearing dead and downed trees, making sure the fire
doesn't get into the tops of trees in what is referred to as "crowning."

Many times, the crew has faced close calls.

Last summer, Lisa Lamont, 32, the crew's only woman, thought she was going
to
die as she and Backward drove their tanker straight into a fire in Fort
Yates,
N.D.

"I panicked," said Lamont, a construction worker on the reservation when she
isn't fighting fires. "Now I don't panic. I do what I'm told."

In another week or two, the Lakota tribe will drive back to the reservation,
where 30,000 other residents live.

They'll wait for their next call to another part of the country. When it's
their turn, they'll head out once more.

---

© 2001, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.).






Hunter Gray  [ Hunterbear ]
www.hunterbear.org  ( social justice )
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´




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