Cherokee firefighters return from Oregon blaze
Ruben Chuckluck, Cherokee Nation Wildland Fire program manager, far right, stands with his crew that performs fire suppression and prevention services for tribal lands. Two members recently returned from battling a blaze in Oregon. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
A crew of firefighters that included Cherokee Nation firefighters Josh Neighbors and Nathan Sands trek to the “Huron” fire in Oregon in August to assist in suppression. The fire was approximately 2 acres in steep rocky terrain and took two days to control. COURTESY
A crew of firefighters that included Cherokee Nation firefighters Josh Neighbors and Nathan Sands clean up a fire line on the Burns Cabin project site near Meacham, Oregon, in August. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation Wildland Fire program recently had two Cherokee firefighters return from a month-long trip to the Umatilla Reservation near Portland, Oregon, to help with fire suppression where they tread steep hills to be first on the scene for any fires.
CN citizens Josh Neighbors, fire and fuels technician, and Nathan Sands, lead fire and fuels technician, left Aug. 3 and returned Aug. 27. While there they performed fire suppression and prescribed burns to fight oncoming fires.
“The West and the Northwest (United States), they’re in drought and they haven’t had any rain and they’re getting fires. So we went out there for initial attack is what we were out there for, to keep their fires small,” Neighbors said.
Neighbors said the initial attack means being one of the first resources to fight a fire and keep it as small as possible.
“They haven’t had any moisture,” he said. “It’s brown out there. It’s not green like it is here. It’s super brown and super dry. But out west, they get a lot of dry lightning, which means they’ll have thunderstorms building, and they’ll have lightning going all over the place and no rain. And then so that lightning, it’ll hit a tree or anything that it hits and it’ll start a fire.”
Neighbors said they also fought the “Huron” fire for two days, which was an extended attack, meaning the fire reached the next level after initial attack.
“It was a small fire but it was in some nasty super steep terrain,” Neighbors said. “It was kind of low-spread potential, but what our job there was to create a barrier between the fire and the fuels (timber, brush, etc.). When a fire gets in there, it’s kind of woody and it’s kind of a volatile fuel and it takes off so what we had to do to separate the fire from that fuel.”
Sands said when they were not fighting fires, they performed project work and patrolled the reservation. “Project work is just thinning (and) prepping lines for burns they’re going to do in October. We’d do that. In most of the places we went, we got put into some pretty rough country.”
Neighbors said preparing land for a prescribed fire means burning controlled fires and clearing any fuels to help future fires not get out of control.
He said they usually go to places in California, Oregon, and Montana, wherever they are needed when its fire season.
The CN Wildland Fire program has existed since 1988, going through several name changes and services, in conjunction with the National Forest Service.
“Back in 1988, the National Forest Service started going to Indian tribes trying to get fire programs established within them because they needed additional people for all of these fires going on,” Ruben Chuckluck, CN Wildland Fire program manager, said.
The initial program was known as the Fire Dancers.
In 1995, Chuckluck said the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a fire program in the CN, separate from the initial program, and firefighters in that department were called Rangers. They came together in 2014, doing away with the names.
In 2017, another program started within the current fire program called the fuels program to perform prescribed burns, Chuckluck said. “So we started this fuels program three years ago to start helping with that, to start reducing fuel loads. So burning pine stands so we can actually go in there. We’ll go in there a few months before a year before we’ll start clearing out some of the trees. We’ll start clearing out some of the brush in there. That way it gets where if a fire happens in there, that we can manage it.”
He said the fuels reduction program reduces hazardous fuels that could cause a major fire. This is what the firefighters do before Oklahoma’s fire season and when they are assigned to other states.
Fire prevention is another program within the fire program, and leans more toward educating the public about reducing fire risks.
“We’re not your typical fire department,” Chuckluck said. “We are strictly wildland fire. So anything that goes with wildland, grasses timber stuff, that’s what we respond to and suppress. Our biggest concern is protecting tribal lands.”
For information visit www.cherokee.org/all-services/career-services/tero/wildland-fire-program/