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Cherokee Nation Firefighters Assist Western Tribes During Turbulent Fire Season

Courtesy Cherokee Nation Wildland Fire Program
Members of the Cherokee Nation Wildland Fire Program at a fire on the Flathead Reservation in Montana in August.

The Cherokee Nation has deployed members of its Wildland Fire Management team to assist Indian nations in Western states battle this season's wildfires.

"The suppression program goes all over the United States helping with fires," said program coordinator DeWayne Chuckluck during a Friday phone interview. "They could be East Coast, West Coast, it really doesn't matter. When other tribes request help and we've got some people available, we'll actually send people there."

Chuckluck said firefighters in the program have already assisted this year with fires on the Tohono O'odhom and Gila River reservations in Arizona; the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana; and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon.

As of Friday morning, all teams had returned from the field and no assistance had been requested for any of the current fires making international headlines, Chuckluck said.

"Now that could change today, that could change tomorrow," he said, adding that his team would be ready to deploy.

The Wildland Fire Program also works on fire suppression locally across the 14 counties of the Cherokee Nation. Chuckluck said they also help the U.S. Forest Service with prescribed burns, teach fire prevention in schools, and assist in surveying for Indian cultural artifacts at burn sites.

"Most of them like the outdoors, they like doing what they do, they like helping others. That's kind of why they get into it," Chuckluck said of the team members. 

Crew member Lacey Crawford described her work with a helicopter team in Montana in a recent video posted on the Cherokee Nation Facebook page.

"My job here is initial attack. We use the helicopter to take buckets like I'm sure you've seen on television; they have the orange buckets that attach to the bottom of the helicopter," Crawford said.

Chuckluck said the program employs three full-time, two part-time, and 15 "on-call" staff, and has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service since 1988 and with the Bureau of Indian Affairs since 1995.

He said helping other tribes is not only the right thing to do, but also good for Cherokee Nation.

"It makes me feel good to go help other tribes out when they're in need," he said. "In exchange, we might need  help next year or in two years, and we can call up on those people and they can come and help us out."

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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