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Firefighters respond to wildfires nationwide

Firefighters of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Fire Rescue Department are always prepared to answer emergency calls on Seminole land, but they are also duty driven to respond to needs throughout Indian Country.

“We have an obligation to maintain our jobs at home, but we also support the national fight,” said Division Chief Jeff Alter during the department’s Aug. 27 recruit graduation in Hollywood.

Absent from the ceremony were four veteran Seminole wildland firefighters who were battling blazes throughout Indian territory in California and Idaho. Wildland firefighters are all trained in CPR and first aid response, and one is coincidentally a certified emergency medical technician (EMT), but wildland firefighters are not required to be paramedics.

Battalion Chief and Assistant Fire Management Officer Don Mitchell was deployed to the Hoopa Valley Reservation in California; firefighter Nick Apostolopoulos was stationed in the Nez Perce National Forest near the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Idaho; and Wildlife Protection Field Ops Supervisor Michael Lightsey and Fire Rescue Tech Dane Martin were serving in northern California with the Ute Mountain Agency Fire and Aviation helicopter team.

“Right now all the western Tribes are involved in one firefighting way or another but everyone registered with the national Resource Ordering and Status System can be called up,” Alter said.

As of Sept. 8, more than 9 million acres had burned in wildfires across the United States, making 2015 the worst fire year since official record keeping began in the 1960s, according to a Department of the Interior press release. On Sept. 10, a National Interagency Coordination Center report indicated that 117 fires, consisting of 43 uncontained large fires, were burning in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah and Montana.

Alter said the Seminole department’s recent response came on the heels of an Aug. 14 alert from the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group that raised the National Fire Preparedness Level to 5 – the highest readiness level for wildland fire operations.

Then, 60 uncontained large fires were ablaze across 13 states and more than 19,000 interagency personnel were deployed.

On Aug. 21, the Obama administration approved an emergency declaration for 11 counties in Washington state and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

“And even right now, today, they are requesting every available person to respond,” Alter said.

Wildfires are common foe to Florida firefighters.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Florida sees the most lightning strikes per year in the United States. Lightning, according to the National Fire Protection Agency, is the leading cause of about 24,600 forest, grass and house fires annually.

In early summer, after a May 8 lighting storm ignited a wildfire in the Big Cypress National Preserve, about 350 personnel from multiple agencies mustered to extinguish multiple fires that left 35,000 acres charred just 3 miles southwest of the Big Cypress Reservation.

“Drought doesn’t help,” Alter said.

In a May interview with The Seminole Tribune, Mitchell called Florida a “fire ecosystem” because of its propensity for lightning fires.

“It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when’ and how bad [the fire] is going to be,” Mitchell said.