Skip to main content

Politics complicate tribal firefighting

BROWNING, Mont. - Early on, the hot, dirty, back-breaking and dangerous business of fighting forest fires just kept everyone on reservation fire crews digging in hard, with few politics involved.

"Then, it slowly came to be seen as an entitlement," said Andrea Gilham, acting fire management officer for the BIA at the Blackfeet Agency. "We started having some problems. We need role models. People need to be held accountable for what they do in order to protect that heritage of being fire fighting warriors."

Gilham has only to look in a mirror to find the perfect role model. During her brief fire career, she has overcome many hurdles as an American Indian and a female.

Born and reared in the prairie town of Browning, the largest settlement on the Blackfeet Reservation, she first got interested in fire working for the Forest Service during her summer vacations from the University of Montana. In 1988, she withdrew from school to work on an initial attack crew at the Ninemile Ranger District, 30 miles west of Missoula.

"I was exposed to more about fuels and ecological processes of fire and started seeing things a little differently," she said. "I realized I enjoyed firefighting."

Later she graduated to the Flathead Hot Shots, ultimately becoming a squad boss in her third season. A year later Gilham quit the Hot Shots, got married and had a child. But she soon realized she wasn't cut out to be a secretary for the Browning school system for long.

In 1993, she returned to UM, graduating in 1998 with a degree in forestry. During the summers she drifted back to fire, working on a BIA engine crew. After graduation the BIA hired Gilham as a forester on her home reservation.

Last year, Gilham was appointed acting fire management officer just as fiery chaos broke out in forests across the West.

"It seemed that there was a lot to do with very few people and very little money," she said. "We were behind the other federal agencies in fire management. There was a real lack of planning compared to the Forest Service. We were just functioning, getting by. Shooting from the hip."

This winter she graduated from Technical Fire Management, run by the non-profit arm of the Washington Institute. Course work included five, two-week modules, covering statistics, economics, fuels and overall fire management.

Gilham worked hard to prepare the Blackfeet Agency for this fire season, which could be a doozie. She first directed her staff to enter the qualifications for all Blackfeet firefighters into a computer database, then directed modernization of the fire cache.

But preparing for fire is only part of her headache. During the 2000 fire season she was introduced to the politics and social aspects surrounding reservation fire crews.

As in every large organization, a few bad apples can spoil the whole barrel. And it's no different for Montana Indian Firefighters (MIF) crews, said Mike LeBrun, assistant fire management officer for the BLM in Montana.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"Our people tend to perform very well while on the job," he said. "Sometimes we have leadership problems in camp. We used to have closed camps, but no longer do. Problems usually occur when workers go to town or while they are on their own time. Problems range from anything anyone devised as a way to get into trouble, but alcohol and drugs are the most common problems. Everything else is related to them.

"Part of what's wrong with MIF is that the performance of crews is directly related to the caliber of leadership that the crew boss provides. When unemployment is high and fire occurrence low, we tend to lose our most reliable leaders to other permanent employers."

For Gilham, the trouble was often compounded after she tried culling problem workers from the crews. "There's a lot of frustration when there are disciplinary problems," she said. "The workers are all your neighbors. It's a small town. You know their problems, every gripe they have."

Disciplinary problems weren't confined to the Blackfeet Reservation. At Fort Belknap, George Stiffarm disciplined 30 workers, "for everything from alcohol to just wanting to come home for various reasons."

Local politics often hinder disciplinary actions, LeBrun said. This summer, the BIA will take a new approach to "try to relieve political pressure on the local program by moving disciplinary reviews off the reservations to the zone level, either at Great Falls or Billings," he said.

"Moving disciplinary action to Great Falls is creating a heartache amongst the tribe. It should be left on the reservation," said William Lodgepole, fire control officer for the Chippewa Cree tribes on the Rocky Boy Reservation, who had experienced little interference from the tribal council.

It's a balancing act, BIA fire director Jim Stires said. "We don't impose solutions at the national level, we ask the tribes to propose a uniform and equitable solution. Local pressures can become really intense. From my experience, when you leave it at the reservation level, it most likely will become fraught with problems. But then, if you move it away, the people meting out the discipline aren't tuned-in to the nature of the problems."

Even though Gilham resented local political interference on one hand, she said she believes the BIA needs to integrate the tribes more into the overall management process.

Acceptable behavior for firefighters is spelled out in the MIF Operating Plan, which is updated every year. Since MIF was organized as an interagency firefighting organization - in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, National Park Service, other federal agencies as well as the state of Montana - tribes aren't involved in formulating the plan.

"There seem to be a lot of unwritten rules - and it's unclear and confusing," Gilham said. "People are starting to question the Operating Plan. For our program to succeed, the BIA needs to set out a vision of where we've been, where we're at and where we want to be. The tribes should be involved in the MIF plan. Then, there would be no confusion about the plan. And the tribes would have ownership and support it."

Lodgepole agreed, saying "some MIF policies need to be looked at. It seems like they contradict one another. The Operation Plan needs to be clarified quite a bit."

Gilham would like to "sit down with the tribe and all the agencies involved and talk about this stuff. We need to work together to get to a point where we have a good success rate, where people aren't getting into trouble and are moving on."

She'd also like to hold workers accountable for their actions and give them opportunities to foster a sense of ownership in the program. Building a facility on the reservation where workers could workout and get physically prepared for the fire season would help generate a sense of community, she said.

"I want to see people improve their self-esteem," she said. "Right now some people have a sense that they have nothing to lose. This is a crossroads for MIF. If we can get people to critically encounter their reality, people will begin to think for themselves and can see beyond the MIF crew and understand the bigger picture."