Fire crew bosses Arnold Bill and Danny Rogers and their teams from the Carson City office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs started work Thursday in Hemphill, Texas, searching for small fragments of the doomed Columbia space shuttle.
Leaving their jobs as construction workers, chefs and ski resort staff, the 40 men and women arrived Wednesday in eastern Texas. The teams were trained in search techniques before beginning work Thursday.
The group, representing 11 Western Nevada reservations and mostly the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes, calls the Carson City home office at least once a day.
"They sound real positive," said Jacqueline C. Hawley, fire management officer for the bureau office.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a team of about 800 searchers at Hemphill near the Toledo Bend Reservoir. The ground crew will search a two-mile area along either side of the shuttle flight path from Ellis County to the reservoir.
A large piece of the shuttle's front landing gear, including hubs and wheels, was found near the banks of the reservoir earlier this week.
Fishermen reported chunks of debris falling into the waters of the reservoir during the break up of the craft Feb. 1. The shuttle disintegrated upon reentry, killing the seven astronauts aboard.
The Carson ground crew and others will be searching in a "grid pattern" along the flight path for smaller pieces of debris, including tiles and insulation, said Win Henderson, a FEMA spokesperson in Lufkin, Texas.
"It's a tedious, time-consuming job," Henderson said.
The search is also dangerous, FEMA officials said. Each piece found will be mapped and treated as a crime scene.
Crew members will spend several days lined up, taking one step at a time. After each step forward, the men and women will stop and search the ground to the left, right, forward and behind them. Then, repeat the process step by step, Henderson said.
Firefighters will have to work quickly covering a massive search area 10 miles wide and 240 miles long. Spring foliage in mid- to late March will make it more difficult for crews to spot new materials or find sites that have been marked for pickup.
"They're trying to beat out Mother Nature," Henderson said.
The teams are facing drizzly, wet weather this week as they began their search.
Many firefighters being sent are from Western states -- Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Oregon, California, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. They will work anywhere from 14- to 30-day stints, said officials from the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters from both agencies, local fire departments and Indian reservations will work in squads of 20 and will be joined by representatives from FEMA, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.
FEMA expects about 3,500 firefighters from more than 20 states to be searching the plains of Texas by the weekend.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.