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Firefighting good money, but a dead end future

BROWNING, Mont. - Summers can be very hot on Montana's Blackfeet Indian Reservation at the western extremity of the Great Plains where the grasslands lap against the Rocky Mountain Front.

With an unemployment rate of as much 80 percent, there's often little more to do on the rez than watch the grasshoppers fly during the day, or the Northern Lights pulse at night. That leaves most Blackfeet tribal members to choose from three economic alternatives - move away and find a job, stay home and collect welfare or fight wildfires.

When a big fire call goes out, the community bustles as families drop off their firefighters and often follow the buses out of town. The same often happens when word gets out that crews are returning home.

"When they're coming home, sometimes cars will meet them at Kalispell or Great Falls," long-time Blackfeet firefighter John Murray said.

More than 1,000 Blackfeet, enough to fill more than 50 20-person crews, have been trained to fight fire this summer. The population on the reservation runs about 8,000 people.

"Fire affects everyone on the reservation, whether it be grandmothers, business men or teachers," Murray said. "Somehow fire reaches into all their homes."

It's much the same for Southwest Indian Firefighter (SWIF), crews, said Roger Jensen, BIA forest manager at the Zuni Agency in New Mexico. "When the siren goes off people come running, riding their bicycles or driving their cars with their personal gear. It's first come, first serve if everyone is equally qualified."

There's no doubt American Indian firefighters are an essential workforce. Paul Chamberlin, safety fire-line specialist for the Northern Rockies and a long-time smokejumper, calls these fire crews the "backbone of our labor pool for big fires" in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and the Dakotas.

"Since the Forest Service no longer has many work crews with people who have sawing skills and who are used to hard work, it's turned to the Native American community to fill that void," said Chamberlin who is also an operations chief and operations section head on a national fire team.

Interagency fire suppression efforts "simply could not get by without the Native American crews," said Jim Stires, BIA fire director at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "They are absolutely vital."

But all's not hunky dory with American Indian crews in the fire camps. Many complain that racial prejudice, both subtle and blatant, personal and institutional, still haunts the fire camps.

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Plus, American Indian fire managers fear their workers are losing morale because of the part-time, dead-end jobs.

During the 2000 fire season, when fire charred more than 1 million acres in Region One, the Blackfeet Agency dispatched 1,040 workers on 20-person Type-2 crews. That number doesn't include 10-person camp crews, saw crews, overhead personnel, division superintendents, strike team leaders or the Chief Mountain Hotshots.

This spring, the Blackfeet planned to train 300 more rookies, many of whom hail from other Montana reservations. No other fire center in the country dispatches so many crews.

The Blackfeet are not alone in Indian country. Nationwide, the BIA sponsors 175 to 200 crews, plus five hotshot crews. The seven Montana tribes, collectively known as Montana Indian Firefighters, or MIF, typically muster 75 to 80 crews. SWIF musters about the same number of crews. Another dozen crews emanate from the Lakota and Dakota tribes of North and South Dakota, 10 from Oklahoma and a handful from the Northwest.

For many tribes, firefighting can be the number one revenue generator. On a good year, a crew member can make up to $10,000 for a summer's work. Last summer, Blackfeet crews brought home $6.1 million in wages. Workers also did well at Montana's seven other reservations, including $2.2 million at Fort Belknap, $1.9 million at Rocky Boy, and $1.5 million at Fort Peck.

In the Southwest it was much the same.

Workers from the Zuni crews brought home $2.1 million. The economic impact of firefighting at the Zuni Agency "is huge," Jensen said. "The reservation is off the beaten path, has no casino and is limited in natural resources. The economy is based on arts and crafts. Most firefighters don't have regular jobs."

But when summer rains drench the mountains, the entire populace can suffer from more than depression. During the slow fire season of 1997, the 800 Blackfeet who waited on standby never got to a fire line.

The economic effects were felt far beyond the reservation boundaries.

"All the businesses from Great Falls started calling the fire cache asking if we were boycotting them," Murray said. "We told them we just weren't getting any work."

"There'll be no money for school clothes for the kids," said Bruce Little Dog, a BIA fire guard at the time. "Plus, no money for college."