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Navajo Firefighters Support Local Efforts

By Michael James

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.- A group of elite Navajo firefighters know as Navajo Scouts assembled here March 20 for a press conference and a briefing before leaving for their next challenge, the fire ravaged Everglades.

The Navajo Scouts have earned a nationwide reputation as evidenced by their record of action at out of state fires. Last year they battled six fires outside of Arizona in addition to 30-40 forest fires within the bounds of their reservation land and state.

The Arizona group has become a media highlight among local news agencies. Television and newspapers have routinely selected the Navajo force as the focus of the stories surrounding the recent tragic outbreak of wildfires that destroyed at least 50 homes in the area.

Marlene Henderson of Window Rock, Ariz., said that this is the first time she has been to Florida. It was the same for most of her group who were all looking forward to a peak at the Atlantic Ocean.

"The people have all been so friendly here," said Henderson who became one of the spokesman of the Scouts on this day. At least two television stations were preparing to interview the group as she was speaking with the Seminole Tribune.

"I've never seen so many cameras," remarked one fire weary Scout.

The Navajo Scouts who are accustomed to fighting fires at 9,000 feet elevation had no problem acclimating to the sea level terrain of south Florida. The one outstanding feature the firefighters encountered was that much of the fuel - palmettos and pine trees - were green. A departure from what they are used to in the west.

The Scouts arrived in Florida on Saturday. According to Henderson, they got the call from Region 3 headquarters in Flagstaff that they were to aid in supporting Florida Division of Forestry.

"We grabbed our packs and headed out," said Henderson. The trip took them to Knoxville, then to Asheville where they met a bus, which in turn brought them to Florida.

Their job was to look for hot spots. Hot spots, particularly in pinewoods, are a serious problem. As fires move over an area, pine stumps may continue to burn far below ground as it follows the roots of the tree. The Navajo's seem to have a sixth sense about locating and dealing with the problem.

"Some of the team members can smell a hot spot, others feel it," said Henderson whose team goes to work in an operation known as 'mop up.'

When a hot spot is located, the team digs it out and radios back for water. When water is ordered it can come in several ways not the least of which is by air.

Dannell Begay, Aviation Officer of Navajo Area Forestry Fire & Aviation Management, was able to accompany the Scout team because their helicopter fire suppression season in Arizona has not yet started. When Begay is working as aviation officer, he flies beside the pilot in the initial attacks.

They are the first to respond when wildfire threatens reservation land. The chopper he flies is an interagency machine that is on station at Window Rock. In addition to the chopper, the Navajo Scouts enlist engine crews aboard what Begay calls type six engines. Begay also added that back home he and his group of Scouts have implemented prescribed burning, a policy gaining support in Florida.

In addition to the Scouts' efforts in battling hot spots, they also participate in containing wildfires within a perimeter that they call a hand line. As the term implies, they Scouts manually dig a trench around the fire in hopes of containing it. This most dangerous assignment requires that each team member carry in his or her pack a folding emergency shelter, which can shield its occupant for a short time as a wildfire, sweeps over. The shelter which all of the team hopes they'll never have to use, is tucked neatly into a pack which also contains water, a flashlight, personal first aid kit, and even a deck of cards to provide entertainment once the battle is won.

According to Henderson, one of six Native women on the team, the San Carlos Apache have an all women team in place. Upon her return to Window Rock, Henderson hopes to begin training 27 women for an all women group of Navajo firefighters.

"The training is tough," said Henderson who hopes she will be able to fill the ranks of a 19-member team.

Along with the Scouts, Seminoles also got into the act. When word came to the Big Cypress Volunteer Fire Department concerning the maelstrom that had already closed Interstate 75, Harry Tommie dispatched Danny Tommie and a pumper truck to stand guard should flames threaten the Miccosukee Service Plaza. Harry Tommie and Jeanette Cypress both stood by to offer assistance.

- More on this story next issue.

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