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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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A new batch of men and women are being trained in preparation for the upcoming wildfire season. Producer Jackie Yamanaka brings us this sound portrait from a firefighter rookie camp on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana.


CURWOOD: In Indian country, the up-coming wildfire season can be a welcome time. That's because unemployment on reservations can reach 70%, and temporary fire-fighting jobs can become a major part of a family's income. Each year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs puts on a weeklong rookie camp to train new fire-fighters. This year, more than 200 people, from three Montana reservations, are learning basic fire behavior, survival techniques, and how to use their hand tools to halt an advancing wildfire. Jackie Yamanaka of Yellowstone Public Radio, recently visited the training camp on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, and has this sound portrait:

[Sound of tree bark burning]

ST. MARKS: Say this tree bark here was burning? You wanna use your polaski and pull it off, and take all that you can off of there. Once it's on the ground, you bust it up.

[Sounds of stamping or breaking]

ST. MARKS: Everything is busted up in little pieces. You don't gotta go a million pieces, but you bust it up. You break all the embers off of it. Dry moppin', when they talk about dry moppin', this would be dry-moppin'. We don't have a water source. Dry moppin', you can mix it up; you can stand and mix it, one pile, for an hour, walk away, turn around a minute later, and look at it, and it's started smokin' again.

[Stamping, crunching sounds, then "Ow!"]

ST. MARKS: My name's Jamie St. Marks and I've been fighting fires for eleven years now, out of Fort Peck. And comin' from a reservation, this is really a lot of income, and provides a lot of jobs for us.

YAMANAKA: If you had had an opportunity to do something else, do you think you would have gone that route, instead of fighting fires?

SAINT MARKS: I think I would have, maybe in the wintertime and stuff, but come summertime, you know, this is, once you get this into your system, it's part of your blood, you know. I had a two-year break in between there, where I did another job, but it was something that I missed so much, you know, and I see firefighters go by all the time, and boy, it just gets my blood pumpin', because it's an adrenaline rush for me, to be part of this. It's just something, like I said once it gets into your blood, it's there for good.

[Sounds in the background of instruction and coaching fire-fighting]

ST MARKS: It's--I always call it a paid vacation. I'm adventurous, I like to get out there, I like to teach people things, that I've learned.

[Stomping sounds, "burning," fire-fighters describing what they do]

HART: A typical day as far as hours, it's gonna be 12 to 16 hour shifts, where you'll be hiking up steep mountains, fighting fires in about 90-degree weather. You can lie right next to the fire. They're pretty new, but they'll slowly get used to it. Some of 'em won't come back, I'd say about five or ten percent won't wanna do this again.

YAMANAKA: Could I get your name?

FOUR BEAR: Cordell Four Bear.

YAMANAKA: And what prompted you to sign up for rookie camp?

FOUR BEAR: To me, it seemed interesting. I mean to do something else. Maybe it will be a career for me to change in a different direction. I was a janitor.

YAMANAKA: So you know you're going to be out, on a fire, and the hazard, and everything, doesn't...?

FOUR BEAR: The hazard doesn't bother me. And what you learn here, it sticks with you, it does.

[Fire burning sounds, instructions, laughter]

FOUR BEAR: They teach you a lot.

ST MARKS: Being a Native American, you know, we've come a long ways. Like, I enjoy seeing that people are out here, they're happy to be part of the land, and workin', and tryin' to preserve Mother Nature, you know, and keepin' it safe.

[Crunching sounds. "There you go, good job fellas..." More crunches]

CURWOOD: That was Jamie St. Marks, Cordell Four Bear, and Ray Hart, at the Fire-Fighters' Camp, on Montana's Northern Cheyenne Reservation. The trainees are now waiting to be called out on their first wildfire. This sound portrait was produced by Jackie Yamanaka of Yellowstone Public Radio.

[Music up and out]



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