Indian firefighters contribute their expertise

HAMILTON, Mont. - Drawing on their knowledge of the land and the behavior of wildfires, thousands of American Indians are helping battle the blazes burning across the West.

Firefighting has become a much-needed source of revenue - and pride - for tribes across the country. And at a time when blazes across the West are stretching manpower thin, the native firefighters play an important role.

''They can carry their weight,'' said Mike LeBrun, assistant fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Rocky Mountain regional office in Billings.

About 4,500 to 5,000 Indians have taken part in the fight against wildfires this summer, said Jim Stires of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said that represents about 20 percent of the nation's firefighting force.

Indian crews are well-represented among the hundreds of firefighters in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, which is facing one of the West's biggest fires. Blackfeet Indians are here. So are the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Chippewa Cree, Kiowa and Choctaw.

Fire has been an integral part of Indian culture, making Indian firefighters particularly well-suited for the jobs, said crew boss Dondi Tonasket, 36, a Colville Indian with his hair in braids.

''We used to set our own burns just to cleanse the forest in the past,'' he said. ''Now, our fire knowledge, the way we move through the mountains, is an advantage. We are more aware of the type of situations we could get into, and we're better at remembering ground. It seems to come natural with our crews.''

Tonasket, who has been fighting fires for 13 years, keeps his crew in a tight circle of tents - a Circle of Life. ''It's the way I treat my crew,'' said Tonasket, who learned the celebration-of-life tradition from his elders. ''We stay in the circle, we treat each other as family.''

''I guess you could say we're well-adapted to this,'' said 33-year-old Leonard Foreman, a Kiowa from Carnegie, Okla. ''We can adapt to things better because we've had to survive.''

Foreman has been fighting fires for the past six years and is on his fifth fire this season. This year, his 29-year-old brother also joined his crew.

''Most of us are related by blood or by marriage,'' Foreman said. ''We learned how to handle pressure a long time ago and work well together because of it.''

But it is more than culture and it is more than family. Lloyd Reevis, 68, started fighting fires in the 1950s and returned to camp this year from Montana's Blackfeet Reservation to make some money.

On Indian reservations where unemployment often is staggering - 69 percent on the Blackfeet Reservation - the seasonal work of firefighting for the federal government has become an economic anchor. The salary for firefighters starts at more than $10.60 an hour, and rises to as much as $13.30 an hour for crew bosses.

This year, Reevis' daughter also turned to firefighting, and his wife watches their grandchildren while their daughter is on the fire line.

Tonasket, who works as a road engineer for the Colville Tribes during the winter, said his firefighting money serves as more of a bonus for his family of six. But to members of his crew, it is much more.

''Their salary, wages, here is probably a third of their wages for the year,'' Tonasket said. ''Firefighting is a big part of our employment on the reservations.''

While no one is cheering, the busy fire season has been a boon for the Indian fire crews after two relatively quiet years that hurt reservation income.

The huge fires in the Bitterroot Valley are waning, blunted by cool, rainy weather over the Labor Day weekend. But fires continued to burn on more than 400,000 acres in and around the valley Tuesday, and hundreds of firefighters worked to contain them.

Tonasket's crew of 19 men and one woman received word it is pulling out for a couple of days of rest.

''We made a good reputation for ourselves here,'' he said.


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