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Firefighters dispatched to western wildlands

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BROWNING, Mont. - Scores of wildland firefighters from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation are finding plenty of work this summer around the drought-plagued west.

As of early August, BIA Fire Cache dispatcher Bertie Rutherford had already helped send out a dozen Type II hand crews of 20 members each. Also out on the firelines were the specialized Type I Chief Mountain Hotshots, which also carries 20 members, four 10-person camp crews and four Type VI engine pumper crews.

In all, Rutherford says, more than 600 American Indian firefighters from around the reservation have been tested and trained this season. With most of the recruits already in the field, Cache leaders are encouraging other area residents to apply for new jobs that need to be filled as fast-moving fires rage throughout the region.

"We opened it up," Rutherford says of the recruiting.

Potential firefighters must complete survival and attack-technique training, lug 45 pounds of lead on a three-mile course in 45 minutes or less, and pass a step endurance test, among other requirements. They also must not be drinking alcohol and must test clean from drug use. Camp-crew members go through less-arduous physical testing.

While typically sent all over the country to fight blazes, some of the Blackfeet crews are sticking close to home. That's because three major fires - the Robert, the Wedge Canyon and the Trapper Creek - are burning in and around Glacier National Park, which borders the reservation to the west.

With the right conditions, says prevention technician and crew boss Bruce Littledog, any of those fires could cross the Continental Divide, sweep out of the park and come onto tribal lands.

The Trapper Creek complex, a lightning-sparked blaze that had charred more than 20,000 acres as of Aug. 5, is seen as the most likely to hit the reservation first. The blaze already prompted officials to shut down or limit access to large areas of the park, including travel on the famous Going to the Sun Road. Other fires spreading across southern British Columbia and Alberta are also increasingly causing concern.

With fighting the Glacier Park fires, reservation crews have been sent to the Ross Creek and Big Creek blazes on Montana's Kootenai and Bitterroot national forests and to the Hunt Creek fire in southern Idaho, among other destinations.

Littledog, Rutherford and other Cache officials say they're doing all they can to keep up with the steady flow of men, women and equipment. Smoky air and record-breaking high temperatures in Browning, the reservation's capital, are helping to keep the community focused on the nearby conflagrations.

"This is where most of your firefighters come from around here," Rutherford explains. "It's a busy place. There's no slow time here this time of year."