This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
On June 21, 1963, lightning strikes sparked series of wildfires in Dinosaur National Monument. One fast-spreading blaze already consumed acres of wilderness land when the National Park Service called into action the newly established northern Ute Indian Fire Fighters.
According to the Ute Bulletin, Ute firefighter crews were sent to the Wyoming side of the mountain, dropped into the northern corner of the forest and, by early evening, were on the fire line.
"The boys fought the fire most of Friday night into Saturday and, after a short rest, continued," the Bulletin reported. "[By Monday], a weary group of men arrived in Fort Duchesne to tell of the first experience many had with a forest fire."
Eight days later, the Ute Indian firefighters quelled flames in San Isabel National Forest in Colorado. Within six months, the 42-member organization was called out to major "range fire disaster areas" from Colorado to California. By 1964, their roll call nearly doubled.
"Firefighting in those days was a 'call when needed' type of employment," said Kirby Arrive, Bureau of Indian Affairs fire management officer for the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation. "It was challenging and exciting work that appealed to a lot of tribal members trying to make money and support their families."
It was also, he said, a genuine fit.
"The Ute people have a connection with nature," he said. "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 could do, which, I believe, helped them as wildland firefighters."
The men had to be physically fit with a strong back, the ability to withstand heat and the staying power, if needed, to work more than 12 hours on a fire line.
"My husband Robert was 16 years old when he started out fighting fires," said Joan Yazzie. "He did it for the money, but then realized he loved the work and gained satisfaction from being good at it. They didn't have the restrictions firefighters have today. He'd leave for weeks at a time, take all his supplies, camp wherever he could."
Robert Yazzie would carry a small backpack pump known as a "piss pump" to a fire, as there were no water trucks and work straight through until the fire was out.
The same was true for tribal natural resource ranger Michael Arrowchis, who said fighting fires was hard work, sometimes dangerous and just right for young men hankering for experience.
"I was 16 years old, hired to do the job, so I needed to get the job done," he said. Some 50 years later, Arrowchis remembers the chilling sound of a fire gone rogue.
"We were called to a fire at Bear Wallow on the north part of the reservation here, and just as we started, we heard a roaring so loud we didn't know what it was," he said. "Then the fire just exploded. It burned right up to the treetops and over and kept on going. We had to evacuate."
Before fibers such as Nomex were introduced in 1967, fire-resistant clothing and shelters were limited. Most firefighters wore what they had and were given helmets, goggles, boots and gloves. The two-faced, rake-and-hoe McLoed and the double-edged ax and grub hole Pulaski were standard hand tools.
Safety was mandatory reinforced often by the late BIA forester Walter Sixkiller, in charge of crew operations and performance.
Marshall Colorow, who worked with Sixkiller, said safety and training meetings were held regularly. "Then we'd go into the fields to learn how to go about things," he said.
Over the next decade, the skilled, northern Ute Indian Fire Fighters served 10 Western states, earned national recognition and never missed a call.
"As a kid, I remember my father smelling like fire," Gina Sixkiller said. "I used to think it was the most wonderful smell in the world because it meant Daddy was home."
Eileen Hallet Stone is the author of "Hidden History of Utah, a compilation of her Salt Tribune columns. She may be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to the northern Ute Indian Fire Fighters, and to Larry Cesspooch, Ingrid Wopsock, Richa Wilson, Kenneth Baldridge and Tana Sixkiller Pool.