Have you ever seen a wildfire exploding up a mountain or heard one roaring through a forest? For Northern Ute Indian Firefighters, that was just another day at work.
As a kid, Gina Sixkiller remembered her father smelling like fire. "I used to think it was the most wonderful smell in the world,” she recalled, “because it meant Daddy was home." Sixkiller’s father Walter worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs managing the Northern Ute Indian Firefighters, an elite crew of emergency responders who performed a crucial public service. Established in 1963, the Firefighters were based in Fort Duchesne on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation. They initially worked to protect local tribal lands but were soon called out to help the National Park Service and other federal agencies fight blazes from Wyoming to California.
Robert Yazzie was sixteen years old when he started on the job. According to his wife Joan, "He did it for the money, but then realized he loved the work and gained satisfaction from being good at it.” Firefighters then had fewer restrictions than today. Joan recalls her husband leaving “for weeks at a time, [taking] all his supplies, [and camping] wherever he could."
The equipment was also simpler than today. Without water trucks, Yazzie carried a small backpack pump – known as a “piss-pump” – and worked straight through until the fire was out. Before flame-retardant fabric was available, most firefighters wore their own clothing, supplemented by helmets, goggles, boots, and gloves. Their main tools were the two-sided McLeod rake and the double-edged Pulaski axe.
Firefighting was dangerous work that required physical strength and mental resilience to face long hours on the fire line. The challenge and excitement appealed to many tribal members, as did the opportunity to support their families. It was also a genuine fit, according to Kirby Arrive, another BIA fire manager. "The Ute people have a connection with nature," he ventured. "Fire is an element of nature intertwined in their culture, traditions, and ceremonies. They understand fire, respect its role in life, and have a great sense for what it can do. I believe that helped them as wildland firefighters."
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the Northern Ute Indian Firefighters served ten Western states, earned national recognition for their skilled work, and never missed a call.
Eileen Hallet Stone for Utah Humanities © 2017
See Eileen Hallet Stone, “Living history: Ute crew had the right stuff to fight wildfires,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 3, 2014.