Indians play pivotal role in fighting nation's wildfires

Native Americans, who make up 1 in 5 firefighters, gird to battle summer forest blazes - for the adventure.

All winter, the office phone in the Bureau of Indian Affairs forestry building sits silent, seldom interrupting the sound of the wind in the cottonwoods that line the Little Bighorn River just a few yards away outside.

These days, though, this particular phone on the Crow Reservation rings almost nonstop. All the calls are the same: Crows putting their names on the list of on-call firefighters.

Here, as in much of Indian country, preparation for the fire season is practically a rite of spring. And once the blazes start to roar, it's evident how important these weeks are: One in 5 of the nation's wildland firefighters is native American.

With jobs scarce on reservations, Indian fire crews welcome the seasonal paychecks from Uncle Sam. But that's not the only reason they sign up for such treacherous work. For many, it embodies a generations-old way of living - close to the land, full of adventure.

"Indians have a lot of pride and tradition in fighting fires," says Randy Pretty on Top, who readies a pile of packs in Crow Agency's fire station, in preparation for the fitness tests all fire recruits must pass. "When you put those crews together, there's a lot of physical competition. It's like the old warrior society."

Ready for the front lines

Twilla Pretty Weasel, a firefighting veteran, is one such recruit - and this year she's intent on being where the action is.

Last year, she served as a dispatcher in New Mexico when the prescribed burn near Los Alamos flared out of control. The whole time, though, she was kicking herself for not working on the front lines.

This fire season, she's ready. She's put the required physical on file and passed the fitness test - a hike, in less than 45 minutes, with a 45-pound pack on her back and three miles of rugged prairie under her feet.

"If I get the chance, I want to be out there on the fires with my boys," she says of her two grown sons.

Fires scorched about 7.4 million acres in the US last year, and if indicators are accurate, millions more may be at risk this year.

When the alarm is sounded, Indians will be quick to answer the call. Native American crews are at the top of the list of desired firefighters and are often assigned to crucial areas, says Jim Stires, the national head of the fire-management branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"We have some real high-level, sophisticated computer modeling to understand fire behavior, but if a veteran Indian firefighter told me what a fire was going to do, I'd believe him over the computers," says Mr. Stires, who is white.

He works at the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center, generally referred to by its acronym NIFC (pronounced "nifsee"). The center is a sort of pentagon for the nation's firefighters. During the summer, there are daily meetings in a command room, where the heads of every government agency with land - including the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs - meet for updates.

In the ranks because of Yellowstone

The Yellowstone conflagration of 1988 was the first time on the front lines for Millie Stewart, a nurse on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. She had been working at a resort at Yellowstone before the fires forced its closure. The call went out for as many fire crews as possible.

After that summer, she fought year after year, using her earnings to put herself through college. Ms. Stewart enjoyed the huge camps at the fires, full of all-Indian crews from around the country. Once she ran across a proud, all-woman Indian crew. At a fire near Grand Junction, Colo., in 1994, she met her future husband: Gene Kazhe, a Mescalero Apache from New Mexico.

Her crew, from the Crow Reservation, was all Crow. Tribes retain a strong sense of community, so when her crewmates saw her eating dinner with an Apache, they teased her. At one point, she recalls laughing, she hollered in Crow to a table of men: " 'What? I'm not married to nobody here,'" - meaning they couldn't tell her what to do.

For hundreds of native Americans, it's a family affair. Mrs. Pretty Weasel remembers as a little girl her father heading off to battle blazes with boots in one hand and a bag of clothes in the other. And now her two sons are continuing the tradition.

Pretty Weasel, a dispatcher at a Bureau of Indians Affairs building not far from where white stones mark the graves of Custer and his Seventh Cavalry, says her sons' participation comes down to one simple thing: "This is something they like to do."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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