The recent rash of wildfires across California has reminded us how vulnerable the driest parts of the country are in the face of climate change. As growing fire disasters strike the west, many of those coming to the rescue are members of the Apache, Hopi, Zuni, and other Native nations. In a 2000 paper, the historian Andrew H. Fisher explained the longstanding involvement of Native Americans in southwestern firefighting.
Before the 1930s, Fisher writes, federal agencies generally focused on recruiting white men for firefighting work. Even the Office of Indian Affairs typically attempted to bring in Anglos, people from logging camps and small towns, to fight fires on reservations. But that changed with the 1933 creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and, specifically, its Indian Division. Over the course of a decade, more than 85,000 Native people served in the division, building lookout towers and trails, and helping with firefighting.
Between experience in the Corps and service in World War II, many Native men gained an expertise in working in disciplined groups dealing with dangerous situations. That led to the 1948 creation of the Southwest Forest Fighter program (SWFF), which had an initial core group made up of 24 Mescalero Apaches, most of them war veterans, known as the “Red Hats.”
Fisher writes that the Red Hats soon developed a reputation for their skill. The crew quickly expanded and was joined by parallel organizations of Hopi, Zuni, Zia, and other Native firefighters. By 1953, Native southwestern firefighters were answering calls to California, the Pacific Northwest, and Michigan.
For federal agencies, part of the appeal of on-call Native firefighters was—and continues to be—that they’re only paid for the assignments they work, and they only need to be called in for emergency situations when fires get particularly bad. For the firefighters, the erratic work makes it impossible to know how much work they’ll get each year.
But firefighting work also has its economic appeal. That’s partly because employment prospects can be limited on and near reservations, and overtime for firefighting assignments can add up quickly. In addition, many Southwestern Native peoples prefer not to do wage work full time. Farmers, herders, and artisans often take on firefighting as a sidelight that helps them cobble together a budget.
“Fire money even allows people to take time off to participate in tribal ceremonies and other cultural activities, including such traditional pursuits as hunting and gathering,” Fisher writes. In addition, there are noneconomic rewards for firefighting, including the opportunity to travel, the sense of purpose, and the excitement and comradery of intense, dangerous missions. To some, it’s a way of affirming Native culture as well.
“We are adapted to it,” Carlos Yazzie, a Navajo firefighter, said. “It goes back to our traditions of gathering wood and living off the land.” As serious fires become a more significant issue across the west, that kind of commitment to firefighting will no doubt become increasingly valuable.