By David Arredondo, Native Sun News, Summer Journalism Intern
CHAMBERLAIN – While raging wildfires burn across the nation this summer, Native American firefighters are doing their part in extinguishing the various blazes in and around their homelands – even as they risk their very lives.
The Crow Creek Agency Fire Management team’s very own Jimmy Alberts, who is of Southern Yankton Sioux, or Ihanktonwan Dakota, descent and is a resident of Chamberlain, has been traveling across the Midwest to battle fierce fires and save communities and the environment.
The 37-year-old, four-season veteran of the Crow Creek Reservation’s fire department told Native Sun News that already this summer he’s been to Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota and, of course, throughout South Dakota, and has even faced the ferocious High Park fire in northern Colorado, just on the edge of the eastern Rocky Mountains.
The High Park fire was ignited by a lightning strike on June 9 in Roosevelt National Forest – which had become a tinderbox by that time like the rest of the country – and wasn’t completely contained until June 30, a full three weeks later. Over 2,000 firefighters were involved and total costs for battling the blaze were over $31.5 million. The fire burned 87,250 acres – the second largest fire in Colorado in terms of area burned – and destroyed at least 259 homes. One woman was reported dead from the fire.
“It was one of the fires where you think you have so much control over it, and within a matter of a few hours, the weather let it get away from us,” Alberts recalled. “But the training part kicks in when it actually starts being second nature for you, so it wasn’t too bad,” he modestly added.
Alberts has a diverse set of firefighting duties: He runs the engine, works as a sawyer (does saw-work) for the hand crew and uses a hand tool to dig fire lines.
His season started in May responding to a fire on the Pine Ridge Reservation at which he stayed for 14 days. As an ever-vigilant safeguard, he said he also sat out in the communities waiting for a fire to “pop off,” or ignite, so his team could quickly be on the scene, protecting lives and homes on the sprawling reservation.
Along with his Crow Creek firefighting team from south-central South Dakota, Alberts works in conjunction with the Pine Ridge team from the southwest corner of the state as well as the Cheyenne River Reservation squad from the north-central portion.
“You get pretty close with the guys you go out to the fires with,” said Alberts. “You’re out there for 14 days, sometimes even longer, and you live out of tents and bags and you depend on each other.”
But Alberts didn’t always aspire to become a firefighter. A friend offered him the job, and he gave it a lot of thought.
“It seemed my life was getting a little out of focus, so I called up the guy that offered the job to me and told him I needed a different type of job and lifestyle,” he said. “And this was just exactly what I needed, so I’m glad that I took the job.”
His favorite aspect of being a firefighter, aside from helping people, is the adrenaline rush that fires and danger spark in him.
“It’s the excitement of it – the rush – not knowing what’s going to happen from one minute to the next like on night operations,” he said. “When you see the fire right in front of you, and you have no idea what it’s going to do.”
Alberts also enjoys visiting the separate reservations and meeting different people on his firefighting ventures and just being able to help out.
“They’re glad to see us and we’re glad to be there,” he said.
A highlight this summer was when High Park townspeople in Colorado lined up for four or five blocks with signs, personally thanking the firefighters as they walked through the Fort Collins suburb.
“It was pretty nice, it made people feel pretty good,” said Alberts.
A frightening moment for Alberts was watching the embers and sparks from the High Park inferno while he and his team were camped directly across a gravel road from it. Another was when a propane tank blew up on them.
So far, he and his team have stayed busy and look to continue on that never-a-dull-moment track for the rest of the summer.
“We anticipate having a hectic summer, and it has been that way so far,” said Alberts. “I expect this summer to be quite long still. There’s no official ending (date), so it depends on the weather conditions really.”
And with the scathing, dry heat the summer of 2012 is burning into record books across the country, Alberts and his team may unfortunately be in for an overlong fire season.
He said he’s unsure about his duties for the remainder of the summer and thinks the Crow Creek Agency, which lies about 25 miles northwest of his Chamberlain home on the eastern banks of the Missouri River, could ship him further south to Kansas or Texas. He’s looking to be dispatched to Eagle Butte for the next few weeks.
When not fighting fires, Alberts stays busy as a school bus driver during the winter. And he has a wife he’s been happily married to for almost 15 years and three teenage daughters at home. The loving couple has been together for almost 20 years now.
He says all four of his “girls” always keep a watchful eye over him, even when he’s out in the field.
“When I’m out, I send pictures to my family; they all get kind of worried, so I reassure them that I’ll be OK.”
Alberts’ daily routine out in the field includes waking up at 5:30 a.m. every morning, packing up his gear and eating breakfast. Then he goes to morning briefing, where he and his team receive their tasks for the day and are assigned specific areas of a fire to cover. They’re at the fire line by 7:30 a.m. and are there until at least 8:30 p.m.
“You’ve got to stay mobile,” he said of being on the job.
During an emergency fire, where flames overlap the line and are more difficult to manage, Alberts says there is no schedule, and the team stays near the fire line until their assignment is done – which oftentimes stretches well beyond the general “quitting time” of 8:30 p.m. Then they call it a night and start it all over again in the morning.
And Alberts says he will continue to fight fires as long as his body is able to hold up. There is a physical test that each firefighter must pass in order to be considered for the team; if the day comes that he’s unable to complete the test, then he will join another, less strenuous branch of the fire department.
But, he added, fighting fires is “something that I’m going to be doing for quite a while.”
Contact David Arredondo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright permission by Native Sun News, www.nsweekly.com.