Changing Times Thin Ranks of Indian Firefighters

By Beacon Staff

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Darryl Wallace fondly reminisces about his crews from Zuni Pueblo — shoulders bent to the ground, cutting brush and scraping the soil to clear lines around forest fires.

Sooty, dirty, hot work. Morale high. A reputation to uphold.

“You tell them to build a scratch line. They wouldn’t. They’d build a highway,” says Wallace, fire prevention crew boss for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Zuni Agency and a firefighter for more than 20 years.

The tribe routinely would have as many as 14 20-person Type 2 crews ready for the summer fire season a couple of decades ago.

Now, Wallace is hard-pressed to recruit crew members, and the tribe was able to field only six crews this year.

His dilemma is not unique for Indian Type 2 crews, who are not as highly trained as Type 1 crews but who are the backbone of firefighting efforts.

“Generally, we can only produce about half the crews that we were able to do 20 years ago,” says Lyle Carlile, a Cherokee and director of the fire management branch at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In the BIA’s Southwest region — taking in New Mexico tribes; a tribe in El Paso, Texas; and two tribes in southern Colorado — the number of Indian Type 2 crews has dwindled from about 100 to 55, says Cal Pino of Laguna Pueblo, the BIA’s fire management officer for the region.

“A Type 2 crew member is an individual who is just off the street, like you were recruiting for soldiers to support the war effort. Capable individuals sign up, are sent to basic training and sent off as basic soldiers,” he says.

Tribal fire bosses pin the falloff on a spectrum of factors — mollycoddled youngsters, computers, strict physical standards, new job opportunities for Indians and drugs.

“There’s not any silver bullets that we can find to fix the situation nationally,” Carlile says.

Demetrius Pino of Laguna Pueblo, forestry supervisory technician for the BIA’s Laguna Agency, says the number of the tribe’s Type 2 crews has shrunk from seven to one.

“These young guys, they don’t have to worry about working because the parents and grandparents give them all the money and they don’t have to work,” he says. “These young kids now, a lot of them stay at home and lay around.”

Wallace says young folks seem less interested in the outdoors.

“More or less, they’re behind a computer, playing games and whatnot, whereas in the past, we never had audio-video or computers. We were out there farming and outdoors,” he says.

The indoor life takes a toll on young rookie firefighters who make $13.64 an hour during their 14-day stints on the fire lines.

“Within about four days they are already getting fatigued and getting blisters,” Wallace says.

Demetrius Pino says that when he started fighting fires, tours of duty were 21 days.

“It was all like gung-ho. Everybody was like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s go out there.’ It was exciting. Everybody wanted to be part of a crew,” he says.

“Now, you call people at home and say ‘We got a fire call. Are you ready to go?’ And they say, ‘Let me call you back in 15 minutes.’ I say, ‘Let me know right now.’ They ask, ‘Where are we going.’ I say, ‘You don’t need to know.’ They say, ‘I’ll just stay back this time,'” Pino says.

Cal Pino says he thinks people born after 1980 in Indian Country have become more pampered.

“Prior to that time period, a lot of reservations didn’t have indoor running water, indoor heating and stuff. Everyone was either hauling water, cutting fire wood, so they were used to that type of aggressive activity,” he says.

“Now, everyone has piped-in water and TVs with up to 200 or 300 channels, so the work ethic has changed,” he says.

Wallace says that during the 21-day stretches, he and his fellow firefighters would pack an Army duffel bag with changes of underwear and personal hygiene items.

They would ride Army surplus cargo trucks to fire lines and pack in their sack lunches and possibly one ready-to-eat military meal,” he says.

“Now, they take their whole dresser with them clothes-wise,” Wallace says.

“They’re bringing in a couple of extra bags of audio equipment. I told them, ‘That’s not equipment to take out there,'” he says.

And buses often shuttle firefighters between the fire line and camp, where there’s hot food waiting — “a lot of good changes,” Wallace says.

Carlile says Indian Country has had a long history of sending out firefighters.

“The economic situations on most reservations lent themselves to having a ready pool of people that don’t have jobs,” he says.

“Indian crews have been around so long on fires that they have historically been well-respected and depended on to get the job done,” Carlile says.

But times have changed on many reservations. Many seasoned firefighters who were supervisors have dropped out because of the physical requirements or other full-time jobs.

“We’ve seen a casino come into a reservation that offers year-round employment. They hit us pretty hard on leadership positions,” Carlile says.

“I can go get a full-time job as opposed to being here working on a fire and make pretty good money one year and not make as much money in another year,” he says.

Wallace says that at Zuni, home renovation work has turned about half of the community’s veteran firefighters into carpenters.

Illegal drugs also have cut the firefighting ranks.

“We still have problems, and I’m sure all the agencies have problems. It’s not just marijuana anymore. Cocaine is on the fire line now,” Wallace says.

“A crew in California got caught smoking marijuana and the whole crew got sent back. If one person gets busted, the whole crew gets sent back home,” he says.

But despite all the recruiting difficulties, once they are out in the forest, they enjoy it, Demetrius Pino says.

“A lot of them say, ‘Yeah, we have respect for our Mother Nature,’ and through our religion Mother Nature plays a lot of parts in our life,” Pino says.

“You just do your job and do the best you can out there,” he says.

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