Dream Catcher Fire Cadet Program trains future firefighters

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ASHLAND, Mont. – A unique class held this year at St. Labre Indian School, called the Dream Catcher Fire Cadet Program, trained students in firefighting-related skills and offered them some career choices.

Wildfires are a common occurrence throughout southeastern Montana and many Indian people work in fire suppression. The class provides the region with a trained workforce in that field.

St. Labre Indian School has three campuses. One borders the Northern Cheyenne Reservation at Ashland, and the other two are on the Crow Reservation. Upwards of 90 percent of the students are American Indian. It’s a private Catholic school started in 1884 to care for American Indians displaced by homesteading and continues the goal of helping youngsters in need. Nearly 800 students attend the three campuses.

Pat Dennis, volunteer fire chief at St. Labre, was enlisted to head up the Dream Catcher Fire Cadet program. Dennis was raised in Ashland and has a long association with the school, where his father once taught.

“This was the pilot year,” he explained. “There are a lot of Indian firefighters here. That’s how they plan their employment for the summer. We thought we’d put a new twist on it and instead of just dumping them out after graduation, we’d give them the training they need to go right into wildland firefighting.”

Dennis explained that the class was two semesters long and met after school. “We tried to set it up so if they did sports or other extracurricular activities it wouldn’t interfere. We’re hoping to get it into the regular curriculum next spring, and if that happens it should go really well.”

The Montana Department of Natural Resources provided training materials and loaned training modules for the school to use. “My part was firefighting,” Dennis explained. “We put on a lot of training modules and discussed them and tested on each module that dealt with specific things in wildland fire fighting. We did a lot of practical stuff. We went out and actually burned an area to show them how to use the equipment and let them run the equipment. This is a big plus and just knowing the names of all the tools is a big help.

“We graduated a girl and two boys here at St. Labre plus two others from Crow Agency. All five are Crow tribal members. When they come out of school with the basic instruction I gave them they’re immediately red card certified and ready to fight fire nationally.”

Dennis continued, “There’s a lot of enthusiasm. These kids are out there working and they’re telling others, ‘Hey, this is all right!’ Once the word gets out, that’s half of it. Oh man, it’s been like a dream come true,” he enthused. “We’re already getting responses for next year’s class with students seeing what this year’s graduates are doing.”

Fighting fires is just one aspect of the training Dream Catcher offers. Students are also exposed to communication skills, terminology and the incident command system. Safety is perhaps the most-stressed aspect. Dennis has been in contact with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Montana state offices, and they’re excited about the program as well, especially after seeing the advanced training this year’s class had.

There’s also another advantage. Students completing the Dream Catcher program can receive college credits through Chief Dull Knife College, located on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation at Lame Deer. Chalsea Cady is one student who will be advancing her education in college because of the prospects that have opened up as a result of the program. Cady has Northern Cheyenne and Crow ancestry and is an enrolled Crow. She began work for the BLM shortly after graduation. “It’s been great. It’s fun,” she said. “All the guys here are like a big family.”

Cady explained that she took the class “because it was a dream that I had. It’s been in my family. My family’s done it every year [firefighting]. I thought I needed to do this for the experience and so I can have a better life for me and my daughter.” This summer she’s done a variety of jobs from initial attack [being on the fire lines] to patrolling to check on fires after storms, etc.

“I recommend this class to everyone. You learn from it. You get the basics that you need when you’re a rookie. If I hadn’t taken this class I would have been lost.” She doesn’t know if she would have gone on to college without this class, but it has provided the incentive to continue at Chief Dull Knife College this fall.

Cady added, “I would really like to thank the school [St. Labre]. They gave me the opportunity and I took it. This is a great opportunity to do something.”