HAMILTON, MONT. Drawing on their knowledge of the land and the behavior of wildfires, thousands of American Indians are helping battle the blazes burning across the West.
Firefighting has become a much-needed source of revenue and pride for tribes across the country. And at a time when blazes across the West are stretching manpower thin, the Indian firefighters play an important role.
"They can carry their weight," said Mike LeBrun, assistant fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Rocky Mountain regional office in Billings.
About 4,500 to 5,000 Indians have taken part in the fight against wildfires this summer, said Jim Stires of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He said that represents about 20 percent of the nation's firefighting force.
Indian crews are well-represented among the hundreds of firefighters in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, which is facing one of the West's biggest fires. Blackfeet Indians are here. So are the Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Chippewa Cree, Kiowa and Choctaw.
Fire has been an integral part of Indian culture, making Indian firefighters particularly well-suited for the jobs, said crew boss Dondi Tonasket, 36, a Colville Indian with his hair in braids.
"We used to set our own burns just to cleanse the forest in the past," he said. "Now, our fire knowledge, the way we move through the mountains, is an advantage. We are more aware of the type of situations we could get into, and we're better at remembering ground. It seems to come natural with our crews."
On Indian reservations where unemployment often is staggering 69 percent on the Blackfeet Reservation the seasonal work of firefighting for the federal government has become an economic anchor. The salary for firefighters starts at more than $10.60 an hour, and rises to as much as $13.30 an hour for crew bosses.
Tonasket, who works as a road engineer for the Colville Tribes during the winter, said his firefighting money serves as more of a bonus for his family of six. But to members of his crew, it is much more.
"Their salary, wages, here is probably a third of their wages for the year," Tonasket said. "Firefighting is a big part of our employment on the reservations."