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Taos Pueblo firefighters defend their homeland

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TAOS PUEBLO, N.M. - The insistent whirr of rotor blades spinning overhead drowns out thought. Everyone pauses and looks up to see yet another metallic bird laden with its filled water bucket heading toward the burn.

After the helicopter passes, crews again take up their tasks of clearing brush and downing trees around the fire line keeping the fire at bay for now.

The work is arduous.

Firefighters are covered with sweat and soot. A thick dust kicks up from the ground around the group battling to save their forest, while smoke from the fire hangs low in the air. The buzz of chainsaws fills the space between the walls of the Rio Pueblo Canyon where blackened areas lie above and the river flows below.

"Having to defend our own home ground separates this from other fires," explained Eddie Castillo, crew boss for his team of Snowballs. The Snowballs are Taos Pueblo's own firefighters. Castillo has been fighting fires as a Snowball for over 15 years but this blaze, the Ensebado Fire, is his first on his sacred land.

"Basically, the fires we are facing right now are structured the same way the fires are in other parts of the nation - it's the feeling behind it," Castillo said passionately.

His crew has been on the fire since day one, minute one.

A single lightning bolt, late in the afternoon on July 4, started the blaze, claiming more than 5,000 acres in two weeks. Although no structures or lives were immediately threatened, Taos Pueblo's sacred ceremonial grounds, Blue Lake and watershed have been compromised.

"Our days have been havoc," said Castillo. "We started this incident by protecting the village so we've maintained long shifts. We've been doing initial attack, so we're jumping around on the line keeping the fire off of our resources here, which means our cultural sites - this riparian area, the watershed."

The fire came within two and a half miles of the pueblo. Some residents were voluntarily evacuated for health reasons. The river running through Rio Pueblo Canyon provides drinking water from Blue Lake to the 150 traditional residents of the pueblo and as a result of the wind and fire activity, ash and debris got into the water. Heavy smoke made breathing difficult.

Humble beginnings

"Here on the Taos Pueblo reservation, we maintain two crews and when smoke is reported we go in and try to corral (the fire) before it gets out of hand. That means cutting line around it, removing materials - anything that's flashable, that'll start it out," explained Castillo.

His crew of 18 personnel is organized into three squads with six men in each squad: five members and one squad boss.

Allen R. Martinez, governor of Taos Pueblo, said the Snowballs firefighting team was originally created back in the '50s.

"The first fire the pueblo crew went to was in the Mescalero area and at that time the season was cold but the fire was going on. They had a snowfall at one point," said Martinez remembering a snowball fight the crew enjoyed, "they decided they would call themselves Snowballs and the name has kept on until this day."

When the crew was first starting out many things, including support, tactics, equipment and clothing were quite different.

"I started firefighting in the late '60s, early '70s," said Sam Gomez, who'd spent time as a Seabee in a Navy construction battalion and was a member of the Snowballs for about 15 years. "It has changed quite a bit."

He explained fire fighting crews had base camps, but without conveniences like showers, sinks and the complete, hot meals provided by catering companies today. On the fire line they would have the old military K-rations and canned foods - mostly Spam.

"We had to have our own gloves, our own boots our own clothes," said Gomez.

"They didn't have outfits like this," said Martinez referring to his yellow shirt and green pants issued at base camp. Today's firefighters wear clothing constructed from a fire retardant material called Nomex?. Clothing for race drivers and industrial personnel are also made from the same material.

"All they had were hard hats, nothing like they are wearing nowadays," said Martinez.

"In the old days they just wore blue jeans, they didn't have the Nomex? and they had metal hard hats," agreed Bill Duemling, information officer for the Encebado Fire's Incident Command Center.

Safety first

Although safety is stressed constantly on site and during training, even with Global Positioning Systems mapping, aerial reconnaissance and the proper training and equipment, firefighters still face unpredictable situations where fire is concerned.

Erratic winds can drive flames in several directions at once. Embers may fly over fire breaks and start burning behind firefighters, trapping them.

"The idea of fighting fire is to control it then put it out as best as you can. The main concern has always been safety," said Duemling.

Fire can create its own weather. Rising smoke can lead to what firefighters call plume dominated fire behavior, where the immense updraft creates a zone of low pressure, resulting in sudden down drafts or wind shear as the plume collapses spreading fire rapidly in all directions.

"It's a dangerous line of work," said Mark Lujan, who is a third generation Snowball. His grandfather, Onesimo Cordova and father, Vince Lujan both were on the firefighting crew making service with the Snowballs a family tradition.

Lujan did recount a particularly memorable incident when he was part of a Bureau of Land Management team leaving a fire they were having trouble controlling. An elk calf had caught his head in a wire fence, flipping itself and was trapped. The firefighters stopped and freed the calf. Lujan said he felt very good about helping the animal, even though they were taking a chance.

Gomez's first fire was in Montana, near Yellowstone National Park where he and his crew stayed for 10 days. He said at that time, crews could stay for 30 days or more depending on the fire. "We didn't have regulations about time," he said.

Today, firefighters work no more than 15 and a half hour days with a half-hour break for meals. "Spike" crews, who make camp in the blackened area near an active burn, only stay for a maximum of 48 hours.

Each crew has a mix of hand tools. They carry pulaskis (a combination hoe and axe) used for digging out rocks and roots along the break. They also have a McLeod, a tool with a dull edge for scraping on one side and a rake on the other.

On the fire line, they'll have a backpack combination that includes a five-pound bladder with a nozzle and trigger gun used to spray hot spots to cool them off or other crew members.

Everybody has to wear 8-inch leather boots without steel shanks. Along with the Nomex? gear, firefighters wear a hard hat, gloves, safety goggles and carry the "last resort tool" which is a protective device called a fire shelter in the event they get trapped by the fire. Each has a canteen and carries a gallon of water for hydration plus a headlamp they put on their hardhat to see at night.

Firefighters must complete a prescribed set of classroom and on-the-job training, plus be certified by a physician before going on the fire line.

Firefighting techniques changed over the years

Advances in science and technology have aided firefighters with their work.

Helicopters carry water and slurry bombers drop fire retardant. Maps of the fire area are updated regularly and weather conditions are watched closely.

"They'll draw two lines and dare the fire to come to them," jokes Duemling. During the Encebado Fire, crews cooled off actively burning areas during the night when winds calmed.

"In some cases they may burn out areas before the fire gets to it. They'll dig a line, if the weather is favorable, and they'll burn out along it. Burnouts have to be done under really good conditions or they can create a problem with spotting and they may not even be effective in terms of stopping the fire," Duemling explained.

Usually the more experienced crews, like the hotshot crews, are next to the active fires and the less experienced or less physically fit crews will work at the anchor points.

"They'll have a crew out ahead (a Type I or hotshot crew) and they'll have a Type II crew behind them, backing them up," Duemling said.

Working in tandem, Type I crews build the line and Type II crews improve and hold the line, especially if they are going to do a burnout. Hotshot crews are more experienced with doing burnouts - setting fires to burn back toward the main fire and they have a lot more familiarity with fire behavior.

"We do have SWFF crews - the Southwest Fire Fighter crews from Indian tribes throughout the area - and those are a major part of the fire fighting force," Duemling said.

Female firefighters are also a fairly new addition to crews. "We have two ladies that we bring out with us," said Castillo proudly. "They're very special ladies to us because it's more of a male-dominated type of work. It is time for them to be recognized as good firefighters like the rest of us."

Best thing about fighting fires? Mark Lujan enjoys assisting communities in need.

"The pay!" Sam Gomez said chuckling, and being with his crew. "We had a good crew."