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Tribe’s wildland firefighters gain valuable experience battling western fires

Wildland firefighters from the Seminole Tribe’s team were in high demand out west this summer. It was a rough fire season and seven were deployed around the country.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 46,228 fires have burned 6,990,889 acres nationwide between Jan. 1 and Sept. 6. As of early September, 97 wildfires were still burning on 1.9 million acres in 12 states.

Fighting fires in other areas of the country is nothing new to the Tribe’s forestry department. It has been sending firefighters across the U.S. since 2011. This year they fought fires in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Washington.

Wildland firefighter Chris Kemp aims the water down a slope near some buildings in Oregon on Aug. 9. (Courtesy photo)

“When our firefighters come back they are more comfortable with extreme fire behaviors,” said Grant Steelman, fire management officer/forester. “The biggest thing we get is on the job training.

These deployments are some of the best on-the-job workload. They benefit us by being better prepared for emergency situations and wildfires that arise here.”

The deployments allow the Tribe’s wildland firefighters to function more efficiently and safely to protect tribal structures and infrastructure, while keeping their qualifications current through the Incident Qualification Command System used by all wildland firefighters. Those qualifications cannot be maintained through books and classrooms; they must be maintained on wildfire assignments.

“We have a good reputation with tribal programs and federal teams, which gives us the ability to work better with those incident teams when we have something that affects the Tribe,” Steelman said. “We bring people in from out west when we need it. Those people that come to us often request us to help them. For the last two years we had those teams here at our borders.”

Oregon

Operations Supervisor Michael Lightsey began his career in 1988 with the Florida Forest Service and has worked with the Tribe for 11 years. He spent three weeks of the summer fighting fires with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Umatilla reservation in eastern Oregon. Lightsey was there to support the reservation where needed and he responded to about six fires on and just off the reservation. The topography of the area is hilly and also has some steep terrain. The mountainous areas have a lot of timber, which was difficult to extinguish since trees burn longer than the grasses in the lower elevations.

Wildland firefighter Jeff Radakovic takes a break from fighting the Gifco fire in the 110-degree Texas heat. (Courtesy photo)

“They were so shorthanded out there,” Lightsey said. “It was definitely their dry season. They didn’t have a good snow season during the winter, which they depend on to get through the dry season. El Niño gives them dry winters and they are expecting one this winter.”

Due to the steep terrain, engines couldn’t get close to the fires so a lot of the firefighting work was done on foot. Working in teams, one firefighter carried a bladder bag (five gallon backpack filled with water) and the other had hand tools.

Aviation was another tool used to fight the Oregon fires, including heavy air tankers, helicopters and single engine air tankers such as crop dusters.

“The fuel was primarily grass, even in the hilly areas,” Lightsey said. “There were a lot of wheat fields and cow pastures. Everything was golden brown out there for miles and miles. Fires usually race through at high speed. There were 15 to 20 foot flames if there was wind behind it.”

The grasses and wheat were about three feet high, unless it had been harvested. If so, the stubble was put into bales of straw. Lightsey saw a fire of 2,500 bales that burned for weeks; all they could do was contain it.

Assistant Fire Management Officer Chris Kemp also began his career with the Florida Forest Service about 20 years ago and has worked with the Tribe for the last six years. He was deployed to the Umatilla reservation in Oregon twice this summer; once for 18 days in late July and again for eight days from late August to early September. He also worked mainly on foot because of the difficult terrain.

“We had to use the radio a lot to make sure everyone was OK,” Kemp said. “You couldn’t see because of the smoke. As incident commander, my job was to make sure everyone on the fire line was safe at all times.”

In the valley, local farmers used their tractors and farm equipment to assist the firefighters and kept the fires from growing too large.

Local fire departments also helped by bringing water. But the mountainous areas proved to be the most challenging for Kemp and his team.

“There were white pines and cedar trees burning,” he said. “You can’t farm those trees so it’s overgrown. Fires move fast and tall in that stuff and we needed to get out ahead of it to stop it. We extinguished all the fires; when I left there were no fires. They are starting to get cool weather now and that slows the fires down.”

Texas

Wildland firefighter Nate Cournoyer and fuel specialist Jeff Radakovic were deployed to Texas for three weeks in July and August, where they worked on three different fires in the central area of the state. Together they provided additional attack support for the fires with engines from Big Cypress. They worked with teams from the BIA and other agencies.

Wildland firefighters Nate Cournoyer and Jeff Radakovic are on the front lines in Texas, where they fought fires for three weeks. (Courtesy photo)

“Texas is in a drought and is 14 inches behind on rainfall,” Cournoyer said. “The area was mostly rural but also had some neighborhoods. It was a challenge with both wild and urban interface. The brush fires went right up to the highways and homes. Everyone on the task force and the residents were safe, but one structure was lost.”

Texas presents a host of commercial dangers, including gas lines underground and above ground, oil, low-hanging power lines. At every fire, the volunteer firefighters were the first on the scene for the initial attack.

“When we are at home, we are always the first ones there,” Cournoyer said. “Once the volunteer firefighters determined the fire was beyond their control, they called the task force to come in behind them to make sure the fires were completely out.”

The volunteer firefighters Cournoyer worked with were all qualified for structure and wildfires; some were also emergency medical technicians and paramedics.

Florida

The difference between fighting fires on the flat land in Florida and the varied terrain out west was vast and impacted the firefighters experience levels.

“We do a lot of prescribed burning in Florida because our terrain and weather is easier,” Kemp said. “[In Oregon] they only have a week or two of weather opportunity to do that, so they aren’t as experienced. A lot of these reservations don’t have the experience we have so it’s a constant battle for the BIA to keep full time employees out west.”

Some of their commanders have come to the Seminole reservations and helped on prescribed burns to get more experience; Kemp worked with one who was in Big Cypress in January. “He took that training and put it to work with his team,” he said.

“Going to other places gives us the opportunity to help others,” Cournoyer said. “There were firefighters in Texas who knew about us and our prescribed burn program. Our reputation preceded us and it gave me a lot of pride to work for the Tribe.”

Travel also exposed the Seminole firefighters to other cultures and situations.

“As a non-tribal member, going to these other [reservations] out west shows me how fortunate the Seminole Tribe is compared to others out there,” Lightsey said. “They are still dependent on treaties they signed 150 years ago. You can’t help but make the comparison that the Seminoles don’t have to worry about that. You see that other tribes need help and it was good that I could help out.”

Sending STOF wildland firefighters out west appears to be a win-win for all involved. Steelman summed up the value to the Tribe by helping other areas of the country deal with wildfires.

“These incidents put us in learning situations in real time,” Steelman said. “They increase our knowledge, skills and abilities which we bring back to the Tribe to protect the resources here. Overall wildland firefighting is a very dangerous job; there have been a lot of people killed this year. Anything we can do to be safer and protect Tribal members is beneficial to our purpose.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.

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