Tribal Government & News

Tribal fire crews battled 23 blazes across western United States

The Grand Ronde Reservation and most of western Oregon has so far this season been spared wildland fires, but across the Northwest many other areas have not been as lucky.
This summer, 54 Tribal firefighters have been busy in three northwestern states - Oregon, Washington and California, specifically in the north - battling 23 wildland fires, according to Jeff Nepstad, Silviculture and Fire Protection Program manager.
"Nationwide, California and the Pacific Northwest are where most of the action is this year," Nepstad said.
The Tribe owns six fire engines, five able to hold 200 to 400 gallons of water and one with a 1,000-gallon capacity. The larger engine and one of the smaller engines stay in Grand Ronde for potential fires. The other four are rented out for fires within federal jurisdictions beyond the local area.
The Department of the Interior and the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs direct the fire program. The Tribe's authorization to take part in emergency management incidents nationally comes from these federal agencies and the Tribe's cooperative fire agreement with them.
Through the beginning of September, federal wildland fire funds have reimbursed the Tribe more than $800,000 for the cost of labor, supplies, travel and engine rentals. Of that, rentals accounted for $140,000.
"Engine rental revenue is what drives the program," said Nepstad. "With the lack of federal preparedness funding, more Tribes are getting into this same business model. Total reimbursements for this fire season will more than likely exceed $1 million."
The reimbursements completely fund the Tribe's firefighting program, which costs the Tribe nothing while bringing benefits back to the community, including fire protection for reservation woodlands and career-building.
Logan Kneeland, 24, was certified as an engine boss this year, his sixth with the Tribal program. "I've really enjoyed my experience," he said, "and it is something I would like to keep doing."
"More and more, the Grand Ronde fire crews are known in the fire community," said Natural Resources Department Manager Michael Wilson. "They now have a solid track record of being hard working and they know fire. To be successful in firefighting takes teamwork and leadership, and these skills help the Tribe in many other ways. It is hard and dangerous work, and I am especially proud of the outstanding safety record of our crews." 
Earlier this month, two Tribal fire engines with crews of three were at work at the Happy Camp Complex in northern California. They started Aug. 12 and Tribal crews were in early September in their third week there.
"They could be down there for another month or longer," Nepstad said. "I'm predicting this fire will burn until it rains."
For two weeks in August, a hand crew of 20 Tribal firefighters helped out at the Devil's Elbow Complex on the Colville Reservation in Washington state. 
To date, fires across the country have burned more than 2.7 million acres and about 1.2 million acres have burned in the Northwest. Northwest fires account for 43 percent of the nation's total. At the season's peak, the Northwest had 8,000 firefighters working.
On Sept. 4, Grand Ronde 20-man hand crews departed to fight the northern California July Complex.
The 10-year national average number of fires is 56,278 covering 6.16 million acres. This year, up to early September, there had been 38,395 fires covering 2.76 million acres.
"The year is far from over," said Nepstad. "The Northwest and California are currently in high to extreme fire danger. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is predicting a moderate El Nino year, which causes the Northwest to be drier and warmer than normal."
In 2002, another El Nino year, the Natural Resources Department fought fires into November, said Nepstad.
Everybody working fires this year has seen that most are significantly understaffed. So many covering so much acreage has driven the shortages of firefighters, said Nepstad. Most are caused by lightning storms, but others start from campfires and other recreational activities, and arson.
At the South Fork Complex near John Day, three Grand Ronde engines and crews were at work. Kneeland's engine spent two weeks there and the other engines stayed for a second two-week tour.
"It was nice to have some of our own guys with us," said Kneeland. "After day 14, it definitely starts to wear on you, but it is also what we prepare for all year long. This fire season, it has been pretty much 16-day fire assignments."
For Kneeland, the job is more than fighting fires. "It's serving the Tribe," he said, "and I really do enjoy what we do back here: pre-commercial thinning on the Reservation, helping with future timber harvests. I take a lot of pride in that. It's for the future generations."