Wildfires Bring Jobs and Money to Reservations - Disasters Mean Steady Work for Some Indians
(Note: When setting fires in order to make money fighting them is an 'economic incentive', there's something very, very wrong with the picture.)
June 16, 2004
By Blaine Hardin, Washington Post staff writer
The Washington Post
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Ronan, Montana - Francis Cahoon, born and raised here on the Flathead Indian Reservation, knows it sounds coldhearted, but he is hoping for another summer of ferocious wildfires across the Rocky Mountain West.
Last year, when fires burned a quarter-million acres in Montana, Cahoon said that he and his three sons grossed $250,000 fighting them. Most of that came from leasing three wild-land fire engines -- four-wheel-drive pickup trucks that Cahoon had rigged with water tanks -- to the state at $1,300 per engine per day. This year he has added a bulldozer ($1,685 a day) to his fire-suppression armada.

If all goes well -- if the federal government's forecast for another "above normal" fire season proves correct and parched western forests explode into flames as they have for the past five summers -- Cahoon and his sons will have steady work for months, making as much as $5,675 a day.

"That's pretty good wages for little Indian boys on the reservation," said Cahoon, who celebrated the end of last year's lucrative fire season by trading in his Corvette for a new $43,000 Ford Expedition SUV. "I'm not the typical smart white businessman who wears a suit, but I still make as much as doctors or lawyers around here."

From northern Montana to southern Arizona, half a decade of drought and wildfire has offered Native Americans something they have rarely, if ever, experienced -- a sustained economic boom. "Fire has become steady work," Cahoon said.

Not everyone, of course, is making serious money the way Cahoon and sons are. But federal fire managers and tribal officials agree that an abnormally long run of "good fire years" has visibly improved lives and lifted spirits on Indian reservations.

These are among the poorest places in the United States, with four in 10 residents living below the poverty line and unemployment rarely falling below 40 percent.

"Fire money is paying bills, buying vehicles, and we see a lot of college students depending on firefighting to stay in school," said Leon Ben Jr., assistant fire manager in Phoenix for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "These fires have benefited all 46 of the reservations that I have in my southwest region."

The federal government and western states have, in turn, become extraordinarily dependent on Indians as shock troops to contain forest fires. While Indians make up only about 1 percent of the country's population, they account for about half the firefighters on the front lines of wildfires in the United States, said Dale Glenmore, assistant fire manager in Billings, Montana, for the Rocky Mountain region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"It is the high unemployment," Glenmore said. "This is a population you can tap into fairly easily."

The Montana Indian Firefighters program, which Glenmore runs, paid a record $12 million in wages last year to about 2,500 firefighters, Glenmore said. That's more than $4,500 each.

"Most of that went to young people who otherwise might not be working," Glenmore said, adding that on several reservations in Montana, firefighter wages exceeded the combined income of all other tribal members.

Over the past century, firefighting has become a cultural and economic fixture of Indian life, like hunting and fishing. It is not uncommon on many reservations for young mothers and fathers, when the fire call comes, to leave their children with grandparents for the season. Grandparents tend to understand, because they were also firefighters or fire camp attendants.

Here on the Flathead Reservation, Cassidy Johnson, 18, last week took the rookie training course run by the Montana Indian Firefighters Association. Like most of the 270 young people who crowded into the gymnasium at Two Eagle River School, Johnson has firefighting in her blood.

Francis Cahoon, with sons Daniel, left, and Brian on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, said his family made $250,000 last year fighting fires. (Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

Enlarge photo: http://media.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/largerPhoto/images/enlarge_tab.gif

Her grandfather Larry Anderson was once a smoke jumper, parachuting into strategic hot spots. Now he's an instructor in the rookie school, teasing Cassidy whenever he has a chance. Her older sister is based in California on an elite "hotshot" crew that is dispatched across the country for extended front-line attacks on difficult fires. She has been working this month in New Mexico.

"I need to pay for college next year," Johnson said, adding that there is "no way" she could find another job that would pay her the $11.86 an hour that rookie firefighters earn. They usually work 12-to-14-hour days in two-week shifts.

Outside the gymnasium, nearby pastures were a lush green from rain showers the past couple of weeks and, to the east, rain clouds obscured the nearby Mission Mountains. But inside the gym, during the first fire-control lecture, Jim Clairmont, the chief instructor, told the rookies not to fret about the moisture.

Fire technicians had been stomping around the Mission Mountains, Clairmont said, and found that the moisture content of the big trees up there was only about a third of normal. Recent rain, he said, was doing little more than growing brush that, later in the summer, would probably be kindling for those trees.

"We are looking at a real severe fire season again," he said -- a statement that many of the rookies seemed comforted to hear.

A highly specific strain of fire Schadenfreude -- hoping for the worst in some distant forest because it is best for one's immediate family and friends -- is endemic on this and many other reservations.

Asked about it here, many veteran firefighters shrugged and said they mean no harm; they simply want to make a living.

There is, however, a rare and recent example of this feeling running amok.

Leonard Gregg, 31, a firefighter with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March for starting a forest fire in the summer of 2002.

In high winds and severe drought conditions, that fire spread over 600 acres on the Fort Apache Reservation. Gregg, who was among the first firefighters called to help put it out, admitted that he set the fire so he could make money. He said he did not expect it to get out of control.

The money that most Indian firefighters make from fighting fires comes in the form of wages. They work as front-line crews, backup staff or supervisors.

In recent years, however, the walloping magnitude of fire disaster in the West has created a new and rapidly growing category of Indian firefighter -- men like Francis Cahoon, savvy entrepreneurs with front yards crowded with specially modified four-wheel-drive rigs.

States such as Montana do not own enough rugged equipment to keep up in severe fire years. So they hire certified independent operators, often giving preference to Indians. And they pay handsomely, because the need is urgent, the risks are high and skilled manpower is dangerously scarce in the vastness of the West's fire zone.

Last year, Montana's bill for just three-months of firefighting came to $73 million, of which $20 million was paid to rent wildfire engines and other equipment, according to a recent series in Montana's Lee Enterprises newspapers.

"That's where the money is," said Cahoon, 49, who jumped out of logging three years ago and into the firetruck game. He has not looked back since.

He has sent his three sons, Francis Jr., 26, Daniel, 21, and Brian, 19, to courses that certified them as qualified engine operators. That keeps him from having to hire outside drivers (who usually demand $500 a day) and keeps all the earnings in the family.

Parked around the family's soaring new log home on the reservation are three new four-wheel-drive pickups, all outfitted with pumps, hoses and water tanks.

Cahoon said he and his boys would be ready to roll in less than half an hour if needed.

"I want to be first on the fire and last to leave," he said as he handed a reporter several recent letters from forest-fire crew bosses, all attesting to the eagerness and professionalism of Cahoon and sons.

Cahoon, of course, is not the only Indian to have figured out where the fast fire money is.

Ten years ago, there were three privately owned wildfire engines in the Flathead Valley, now there are 30, said Tony Harwood, fire management officer for the tribe's Fire Control Center.

Across the reservation, more pumper trucks are being welded together every month. Harwood calls it one of the biggest small-business booms in the reservation's history.

When the fire season returns to normal -- which would largely eliminate state demand for high-priced Indian fire engines -- Harwood said he expects that a number of people will go broke. That, though, seems unlikely this summer.

After the West is finished burning this fall, Cahoon said, he plans to buy himself a new Corvette.

Copyright 2004 The Washington Post