Following a series of TV interviews last Monday, Osage Nation firefighter Ross Walker headed back to Arizona for a second tour. His assignment would take him to Sells, Ariz., which is located close to the Mexican border.
“I’m returning because more fires have broken out,” said Walker.
Arizona is expecting extreme weather conditions. The other day, Death Valley was tagged with a record heat of 128 degrees. As an Engine Boss Trainee, Walker will be fulfilling part of his continuing education requirements.
Walker, along with James Black and Kevin Walker (no relation) had just returned from several weeks of fighting fires in Colorado and Arizona. The Journal-Capital had an opportunity to visit with these heroes. This is their story.
Their adventure began on July 13th when they drove to Colorado Springs, Colo., to assist with the Black Forest Fire.
“This was actually one of Colorado’s most devastating fires,” said James Black. “It is estimated the Black Forest fire destroyed roughly 467 homes and 15,500 acres.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation but is thought to have been human caused. Fortunately there were no casualties. The Pawhuska group was assigned to the West Division and spent four days securing homes and making sure they were safe from re-ignition or re-burn.
“During this time, the public had been evacuated,” said R. Walker. “Although the public cannot be forced to leave, 95 percent complied. We were also assisted by local law enforcement and the National Guard.”
Black said, “After the Incident or Fire Management Team felt the fire was cold, we were put up for reassignment. Usually when we are deployed, we are out for 14-21 days.”
R.Walker added, “We were spending the night in Albuquerque when the Doce fire broke out in Arizona’s Prescott National Forest. The Muskogee Regional BIA office contacted us about joining a 20-man crew that was being formed to fight this massive fire. This team would also include members of the Creek, Seminole and Miami tribes.”
The Osage Nation Emergency Management Wildland Fire Management Department is part of an inner-tribal agency.
Upon arriving in Prescott, the team spent the first day getting acclimated with the area. Since they would be working in an unfamiliar area, scouting and learning the terrain, particularly access roads, is a crucial part of their job. The next three days were spent working with crews that had been assembled from across the nation.
“Our main task at the Doce fire was to construct (chain) saw lines or fire breaks in case of an outbreak,” said R.Walker. “When we arrived, the fire was very intense, very hot and dry. Fields were readily ignitable.”
Safety is crucial for firefighters. Workers are assigned to an Incident Command Post (ICP) which is in a safe location, such as in a nearby town or several miles from the fire. That is where the firefighters have dinner; cleanup and take much-needed rests. They are on a 2-1 work/rest ration. If they work sixteen hours on the line, it’s mandatory they shut down for eight hours. If they go over the 2-1 ration, they have to write up a justification report and eventually catch up on their rest.
Safety zones are also crucial in fighting fires. Because of the lack of water, many fires are fought using hand tools. Aerial support is provided by helicopters and airplanes. Depending on the location, many firefighters pack in their drinking water.
Firefighters are a tight knit group. Leadership positions are flexible and frequently change with each assignment. Black’s initial assignment to Colorado was that of a Squad Boss. R.Walker was a Squad Boss who transitioned into a Crew Boss. As a rookie, Kevin Walker worked under Black as a firefighter.
“We have to cover each other’s back,” explained R.Walker.
The Pawhuska crew worked closely with members of the Granite Basin and Flagstaff Hotshot crews.
“Losing the Arizona firefighters hits home,” said Black. “We had dinner with them. These are the people we worked with, counted on.”
Oklahoma has one of the nation’s longest fire seasons. Osage County is currently in its “green up” season. Fire season typically begins in September and continues through October. The biggest hazard for Osage County fires is from oil and gas production — electrical lines and above-ground cables, followed by meth labs. Weather conditions, high winds and drought are all contributing factors.