Native Firefighters Confront Inferno

Carol Berry
7/4/12

Behind the facts and figures that only hint at the scope of Colorado’s burning foothills, some Native firefighters are bringing their skills to bear on the smoke and flames of a killer wildfire.

They include a father-daughter team from Crow Agency, Montana, who wield the tools that create breaks and barriers to slow the raging fire before it destroys more homes and businesses.

Tyler Left Hand, 36, and his daughter TyLynn Left Hand, 18, both members of the Crow Tribe (Apsa’alooke Nation), may be the only father-daughter team fighting wildfires this summer.

He is crew chief of the 20-member Big Horn Initial Attack team from Crow Agency, which has fought the Waldo Canyon fire west of Colorado Springs in the Rocky Mountain foothills since mid-week, when the blaze threatened to spiral out of control.

The wildfire, currently more than half contained, killed two people, destroyed some 346 homes and caused thousands to be evacuated from mountain homes and the exurbs. Its cause is under investigation.

TyLynn Left Hand is knowledgeable in the firefighting craft, but she let her crew chief-father do most of the talking when they were interviewed during a break on July 1. Others of the team from Crow Agency, including Mike Plain Bull, 21, and Archie Flat Lip, 34, listened in the shade of a pine tree.

Helicopters clattered overhead hauling buckets of water, police closed off neighborhoods, Red Cross and FEMA officials conferred at the operations headquarters, and the Big Horn wildland firefighters, as well as Navajo and Hopi crews, inhabited a tent city in shifts, returning from the fire or waiting to be called.

The Big Horn crew carry “red cards” (interagency incident qualification cards) that are federally issued and that attest to their training. The team is a handcrew, hiking miles into the forested area to create firelines by clearing brush and then digging down to bare soil, deterring the wildfire from crossing, especially if the fireline is along a path or roadway that the flames can’t cross, Left Hand said.

On a typical day, the crew would get up at 4:30 a.m., eat breakfast, join a 6 a.m. briefing and then determine which resources go to which area, he said, explaining that part of their training has been to break into modules for different tasks.

The Left Hands came to Colorado Springs from a fire in Wyoming and may or may not be able to go home to Montana after they finish up on their last day in Colorado.  It’ll be determined by whether they’re needed to fight another wildland fire, they said.

The Big Horn crew helps each other physically, but in other ways as well, Left Hand said, “so they don’t get depressed even though they’re away from their families. We all left someone behind—a wife, husband, mother, others.”

For the Left Hands, homecoming awaits, at least at some point.

And the annual Crow Fair in August beckons. TyLynn has an elk tooth-adorned dress to wear, enhanced by pieces carefully beaded by her father in a different place altogether than that of the world of wildfires.

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