Elite Native American Firefighters Join Crews At Yosemite The Geronimo Hotshots are one of seven elite Native American firefighting teams in the U.S. The pay is good, and firefighting jobs are one of only a few ways for many young men on the reservation to earn a living. And it turns out that much of the community there is dependent on the fire season.
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Elite Native American Firefighters Join Crews At Yosemite

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Elite Native American Firefighters Join Crews At Yosemite

Elite Native American Firefighters Join Crews At Yosemite

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We're going to spend some time getting to know one of the most experienced crews now battling the Rim Fire: the Geronimo Hotshots from San Carlos, Arizona. They're one of seven all-Native American Hotshot crews in the country. Last week, NPR's Kirk Siegler visited the team on their reservation as they prepared to ship out.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: A hundred miles east of Phoenix, Highway 70 plunges down Top-of-the-World Pass and onto the harsh scrub and cactus lands of eastern Arizona. Pass a couple of dusty mining towns, then it's a sharp left-hand turn. Before too long, KYAY, the Voice of the San Carlos Apaches, comes in clear at 91.1.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken). This next song goes out to Nessa(ph).

SIEGLER: The road is now called Tonto Street, and it snakes along the edge of the small town of San Carlos and up to the top of a mesa.


SIEGLER: Here, outside the Tribal Forestry Office, 25-year-old Jose Alvarez Santi Jr. is cleaning his chainsaw, first by hand, next with an air compressor.


SIEGLER: As a sawyer, Santi is one of three men on the 20-member Geronimo Hotshots who saws down the trees so the crew behind them can dig a fire line.

JOSE ALVAREZ SANTI JR.: The rewarding part is getting in shape and also learning leadership skills, you know, because we work all together as a crew, and we got to keep that good attitude.

SIEGLER: And he says it's hard work, but fun. When Santi first tried out for the team, he weighed 220 pounds. A lot of his friends doubted he could hack it as a Hotshot. But three years in, he's a slim 180. It's all muscle, and he's not looking back.

JR.: I don't really see it as a job. Being out away from my family, that's when it - that's the part that I'm down about, is just being away.

SIEGLER: Santi has a 3-year-old son. He's only seen him for a dozen or so days this entire season. The crew works a fire for 14 days, then it's a long drive home for maybe one or two days of rest, then back out again. This late in the season, you can see this grueling pace is starting to take its toll on a lot of the guys. But they know it's also good money. In a good year, they can make 40 grand. That goes far here.

TOM PATTON: Of course the wife's loving it.


SIEGLER: Senior firefighter Tom Patton spits his chew onto the baking concrete as he checks his 50-pound pack to make sure everything's in there.

PATTON: This is my regular clothes, sleeping bag and whatnot, all the good stuff, Pringles, emergency.

SIEGLER: There are a number of major fires burning in the West right now, so they know they'll get called out soon. Patton says he likes this early-morning anticipation of not knowing where the crew will get to go next. He's just glad to be back out here. A slipped disc in his back sidelined him last season.

PATTON: Right now, I just can't wait to get out of here. I want to go on another fire, you know? It's our only way, our means of supporting our family.

SIEGLER: As on most reservations, jobs are hard to come by here, and most families live well below the poverty line. There are a few jobs with the tribal government or at the small casino on the outskirts of the reservation. But much of the community is dependent on the fire season.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Very hot in here because facilities are not so up to par.

SIEGLER: The only restaurant in town is the San Carlos Cafe. It's in a worn stone building built by the U.S. government at the turn of the 20th century. The menu on the wall features the Hotshot breakfast burrito. The owner, Jo Lazo, says the firefighters are looked up to here.

YOLANDA JO LAZO: I like to say our Apache men are the strongest of all firefighters. I think it just goes down through genealogy and the struggle that we had many, many years ago, you know? We never go down without a fight.

SIEGLER: Lazo is proud and pragmatic. The Hotshot crew are regulars here, and that's good for business. The tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs also employs hundreds more seasonal firefighters. So during a big fire year, everyone has more money in their pockets, including Lazo. Her cafe caters all the meals for the crews if there's a wildfire near here.

LAZO: And it's sad, you know, when there is a fire, you know, because we do lose a lot of vegetation, but, you know, it's essential, and it's been essential for years.

SIEGLER: It's hard to find someone around San Carlos who doesn't have a father or brother or sister who's a wildland firefighter. In fact, late last week, the town was almost empty of anyone between 18 and 35.

FRANK ROLLING THUNDER: Yeah. Right now, everybody's out on the fire. They're up in Idaho, up in Oregon, up in Washington. They just got called out.

SIEGLER: Frank Rolling Thunder has fought fires since the '70s, mostly on initial attack crews. He says for a lot of people around here, firefighting isn't just good money. It's a ticket off this isolated reservation; opportunities like those don't come along that often.

THUNDER: On my first time we went out, we went out to Yosemite National Park, and there were sequoias, and I've never seen them. It gives me an opportunity to go see all different places, like the Cascades, Mount Shasta, Mount Hood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, Tom and the back one too?



SIEGLER: Back at the Tribal Forestry Office, the Geronimo Hotshot crew has just gotten the call they've been waiting for. After a short two days of R and R, they're heading back to the West Coast, this time to California and the Rim Fire near Yosemite.

As word spread from man to man in the station, the buzz in the room changed. A little anxiety is added to the anticipation. A few guys drift away to make last-minute phone calls. A couple more move their motorcycles into the garage. They'll be gone for a while.

The sawyer we met earlier with the chainsaw, Jose Alvarez Santi, he's hoisting his bag into a truck.

JR.: We're all set. Right now is the time where everybody kind of double-checks to make sure they got everything they need, make their last calls to their family.

SIEGLER: For Santi, this is the moment when it becomes clear what it means to be a Geronimo Hotshot.

JR.: I hold the name up high, you know? Wherever I go, my family, you know, they're proud of what I do.

SIEGLER: Santi says it's not just about fighting fire or saving people's homes. It's about representing his people off the reservation. He says the crew meets a lot of people who've never heard of the San Carlos Apaches or their history.

JR.: We come from a people that were pushed around, shoved into reservations, and then - to me, you know, I want our people to, you know, show that we can do a lot of things other than being pushed around and shoved around. It's a good feeling.

SIEGLER: White trucks with blue letters spelling out Geronimo are all packed. No more time to talk. Ten men to each buggy as they call them. They'll drive through the night to California, and then it's onto the front lines of the Rim Fire. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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