Home->Winter 2005/2006

Firefighting Forces in Indian country: Yesterday and Today

Author’s Note: We acknowledge the fact that Native involvement with fire goes back since time immemorial. The focus of this article centers on firefighting forces within Indian Country from the 1930s to present day.

1951—Mendocino National Forest, California.
Mescalero Apache Indians from New Mexico
fighting a forest fire on the Mendocino NF.
They were flown in by the Air Force
from their reservation. They were the crack
“Red Hat” group trained by the Indian Service
to fight fire on their reservation. Photo by
Chester Shields, “Forest Service Historical
Photograph Collection, National
Agricultural Library, Special Collections”
“It shall be the duty of the Indian police to prevent and suppress forest and grass fires as far as possible, and failure on their part to perform such duties, or to report promptly any fire which they cannot control, will constitute sufficient cause for dismissal.”

Office of Indian Affairs, Regulations and Instructions for Officers in Charge of Forests on Indian Reservations, June 29, 1911.

Indeed, Indian Country has come a long way during this past century in terms of the evolution of the Indian firefighting force. What was the social pretense of fire then? What is it now? To answer these and other questions, we start with some of the first organized Indian fire fighting crews; the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the most famous and successful job creation programs in America’s history. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt developed a package of programs aimed at ending the Depression by stimulating the economy and putting people back to work. The “New Deal” programs were enacted during the first hundred days of the Roosevelt Administration.

The “New Deal” programs were started during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was organized in April of 1933, under authorization of Congress in an act of March 31, 1933, under the title “Emergency Conservation Work” (ECW), to provide employment to young unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 28. Four departments—Labor, Agriculture, Interior and the Army—worked together to establish and operate work camps.

The enlistment period was for six months with the possibility of reenlistment. Initial strength by June 29, 1933, was 270,000 young men working in 1330 camps. Average strength was 300,000 in 1500 camps, or about 200 men per camp. The height was reached in 1936 with over 500,000 enrollees. In June 1937, legislation was passed extending the Corps for three more years, as well as making the name Civilian Conservation Corps official. The CCC included Native Americans and African Americans among its enrollees. The Office of Indian Affairs was further authorized to enlist 14,861 American Indians, who, living at home rather than in camps, worked on projects on Indian reservations. So began the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps (ID-CCC).

Most camps were segregated and had white officers and educational advisors. The Native Americans performed work on their own reservations and not all lived in camps like the others. Almost three million men were eventually enrolled in the Corps. Native American enrollee estimates were nearly 80,000 over the span of the program.

The ID-CCC enrollees cleared underbrush, helped in historic excavations and stabilization of buildings and ruins, built roads, and trails, park buildings, campgrounds, picnic areas, picnic tables, fireplaces, signs and exhibits. The enrollees also fought fires and helped in natural disasters.
In addition, the ID-CCC developed forest fire protection systems that strengthened reservations. David Dejong of the Native American Research and Training Center highlighted some of the accomplishments of the ID-CCC: over 100 fire lookout towers were erected. 600 fire cabins were built and 7500 miles of telephone lines were strung on reservations that had timber resources. Thousands of miles of trails were constructed to gain access to areas that could be engulfed in fire.

Of course the presence of these enrollees in the forests furnished the nation with a first-class forest firefighting patrol during fire seasons which resulted in millions of acres of forest and  park land being saved from fire damage. CCC enrollees expended 7,930,912 mandays on forest fire-fighting duty or on fire prevention or fire presuppression work. With the entry of the United States in World War II, Congress, against Roosevelt’s wishes, abolished the Corps on June 30, 1942.

The second wave of organized Indian firefighters

“For centuries we have sung around the fire, the center of our universe. We have known of the wonder of fire. And when Mother Earth is ready for cleansing, she has called upon fire to do it. It is now a season of fire.”
Author unknown.

With many ID-CCC and WWII veterans still ready to exercise newly-developed skills, many were put to work doing what they learned; forest fire protection. Also, given that most of the Indian tribes with timbered resources wanted to continue with suppression actions, it was a good mix of talent and need.

Robert Winston reported that in 1948, Bert Shields, a BIA forest manager at the Mescalero Apache Reservation organized one of the first groups of Indian men devoted solely to fighting fires. Most of this group consisted of WWII veterans and called themselves the Mescalero Red Hats and led the way for the creation of other highly skilled Indian firefighting crews.

In 1950, the Red Hats won acclaim for their service during several fires in New Mexico. It is said that the Red Hats along with the Zuni and Santo Domingo fire crews were among the firefighters that discovered the little bear cub whose paws were burned in a forest fire. Smokey the Bear was introduced to the world and fire suppression now had an action hero; fighting fires now had new meaning and the American public had reason to combat the “evils” of wildfire.

To avoid confusion, it should be noted that there was another fire fighting entity also under the name “Red Hats.” On the coastline of the Pacific Northwest, groups were organized for fire suppression to fight fires that might be started by Japanese aircraft or balloons during WWII. Called “The Red Hats” because of the distinctive red felt hats that were part of the uniform, the group solicited young college students from all over the United States who gathered on the coast to be trained for fire fighting. The concern from air attacks never materialized, however, a couple of suspicious starts were reported and reports were classified.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, extinguishing all wildfire at essentially all costs continued to be the main focus of fire suppression. Fire was still looked upon by many as an unnatural component of the environment and had to be defeated. Even though many tribes had traditional ties to fire use, many still agreed with the ideology that fire was the enemy when it came to protecting its highly-valuable timbered resources.

However, in the 80s and 90s things started to change. Indian firefighters were not only being hired to suppress fires, they were being hired earlier in the year to conduct pre-suppression work: thinning of overstocked stands, prescribed fire, piling and burning.

Many tribes also started to bring back the traditional stories of fire use. Those stories are commonly described and defined as Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK). In the context of fire, TEK incorporated the cultural and historic role of fire as remembered and told by tribal elders. The telling of the historic and cultural role of fire through the stories has been an important element useful in integrating fire strategies with the larger land management picture for tribes. Tribal forestry and fire programs are currently implementing successful land management programs utilizing local TEK and making great strides in resource management.

The Indian firefighting forces of today

Nationwide, nearly 10,000 Administratively Determined (AD) Indian firefighters were on the lines in 2004. Though American Indians make up less than one percent of the U.S. population, they account for nearly 50% of the nation’s AD wildland firefighting force. In the Southwest and Rocky Mountain regions, estimates for fire employment of Indian ADs range from 60-70%. For Indian firefighters, this can translate into a job that can bring in between $5,000 to $25,000 for a few months of hard work. For tribal members and communities struggling with high unemployment, this involvement can mean everything.

The ever expanding role of Indian firefighters and wildland fire management bode well for tribes and the BIA. President Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA), implemented to reduce forest fires by thinning overgrowth and reseeding burned areas could possibly be an excellent opportunity for tribal fire crews and businesses. Couple the HFRA with the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004, and the opportunities could be endless for tribal entities.

In light of the recent legislation, past Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Neil McCaleb stated, “For years, many Indian firefighters have risked their lives to protect homes, families and communities across the country from the devastating effects of forest fires. Tribes that provide forest thinning and re-seeding services could save lives and property, and provide new employment opportunities for their members, as well.”

Over the past century, firefighting has become a cultural and economic fixture of Indian life. It is not uncommon on many reservations for mothers and fathers, when the fire call comes, to leave their children with grandparents for the season. Grandparents tend to understand, because many of them were also firefighters and some were even members of the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Germaine White, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, points out that, “Today, firefighters are held in high regard and their commitment and sacrifice is acknowledged and respected.”

That commitment and sacrifice not only is represented today across Indian Country by our firefighting brethren, but also by the respect paid to our elders that have passed down the fire-related knowledge. We thank those that are still with us and those that have gone home. We live, we learn, we educate, we grow. So goes the continuing story of Indian Firefighters. Commitment. Sacrifice.

1. Newell, Alan S., Clow and Ellis. A Forest In Trust: Three-Quarters of a Century of Indian Forestry. 1910-1986. Historical Research Associates. Missoula, MT. 1986,
2. Sypolt, Larry N., Civilian Conservation Corps. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2005.
3. Dejong, David H., Native American Research and Training Center.
4. Winston, Robert M., Native American Firefighters of the Southwest. Firehouse. October 1999.
5. Peckham, Robert, The Oregon Coast on the Front Lines. Oregon Coast Magazine. V. 19 Num. 2, March/April 2000.

Bodie Shaw
Deputy Chief, National Interagency Fire Center, BIA

"We must always consider the environment and people together, as though they are one, because the
human need to use natural resources is fundamental to our continued presence on earth."
34 Paul Bunyan Lane in Libby, Montana 59923 • Tel: (406) 837-0966 • Email: