The recent triple digit heat waves and raging wildfires such as those across Colorado and other sections of the USA always trigger national concern during “the fire season.” And as this “news junkie” author/journalist/guest blogger watched the weather station’s meteorologists roller-brush much of the nation’s midsection with swatches of red and pink, it triggered in my memory an article I read not too long ago, one that really stuck with me.
I knew about the Navajo firefighters who specialize in “hot spots” and who extend their expertise nationwide where needed. But it was a surprise of bombshell proportions when I read about the all-female firefighting crew from the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
While the Apache consist of several nations—the Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan and Kiowa-Apache—the White Mountain are Western Apaches. They differ in language, culture, and history, but are also closely related to the people of San Carlos, Camp Verde, and Payson.
Destined to become one of the country’s top wildfire-fighting crews, Apache 8 formed in the mid-1970s when there were few other job openings on the reservation and the fire safety department needed people to work. The women “stepped up to the plate” and fought wildland fires in Arizona and throughout the United States for over 30 years (1974 to 2005). Although they were renowned within the firefighting community and the White Mountain-Fort Apache Reservation, they were largely unknown in the mainstream.
Acceptance, however, was not immediately extended to them. After all, they were women—Indian women—who had ventured outside the boundaries of where tradition had assigned them. But they soon laid fears and doubts about their abilities to rest when they proved they could wield chainsaws, cut down trees, thin out areas, and do everything else the job required.
Before long, they established such a standard of excellence they were immediately recognized when they showed up for assignments: they were the women firefighters of Apache 8. As they were escorted to work sites, male firefighters conceded that their work ethic exceeded that of some of the men (who, after 2005, became part of the crew).
But their presence on the team does not render the story of the Apache 8 women any less extraordinary. Their uniqueness would be soon immortalized when they grabbed the attention of film director, Sande Zeig. Headed for home in a Phoenix airport, Zeig spotted a group of women in yellow shirts, women in their 20s through 50s. She had no idea who they were, or even suspected that they were Native American. When they identified themselves as Apache firefighters, Zeig knew right away that she had to make a film about them.
With resolve and all the other preparations that comprise movie-making, the firefighting team is now the subject of the documentary Apache 8, which aired at the Native American Film + Video Festival at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City (2011). The women’s lives and the challenges they faced are largely explored through the perspectives of 4 of the 8-member original team: Katy Aday, Nina Quintero, Ericka Hinton and Cheryl Bones.
As the tough and highly regarded crew boss who was responsible for their training, Bones led them on firefighting assignments on-and-off the reservation. Although her leadership of the all-female crew sometimes earned her scrutiny and personal pain as well as praise and respect, it did not dampen her pride in being a Fort Apache firefighter.
Katy Aday, on the other hand, left the reservation as a child to live with a Mormon family in order to receive an education to help her people. After graduating high school, she joined the military and is both a Desert Storm veteran and social worker.
When petite Aday initially applied, she was told by the then-director of forestry that she was too small, the gear too heavy, and that she “couldn’t do it.” But deceptively tough and not to be dissuaded, she proved otherwise. In addition to continuing to fight fires, the civic-minded Aday is also a member of the local board of education.
Nina Quintero not only fights fires, but a personal battle equally as challenging: that of diabetes, a disease that is rampant in many Native American communities. Still, the long-time member takes it in stride and dreams to someday become a crew boss like her mentor, Cheryl Bones.
The youngest of the women, Ericka Hinton, a role model for younger Native women, represents the future of female firefighters. One of the first women on the Apache “Hotspot” team, she is dispatched to particularly active parts of fires, and now fights fires alongside her husband. Both sacrifice long periods away from their children during fire season.
Although the team demonstrated strength, courage, determination, teamwork, and leadership, the movie also depicts the women in traditional roles: cooking, openly displaying emotion, and sharing personal struggles.
The women of Apache 8 have received national recognition for their service, but it was crew boss Cheryl Bones whose image is the model for a bronze statue for the wildland Firefighters Monument that honors all firefighters, regardless of race, ethnicity—or gender.
Apache 8 is a 57 minute film well worth watching.
References: White Mountain Apache History website; Wikipedia; http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/03/22/apache-8-fighting-fire-with-women-24039#ixzz1wnISR2CV; IMDbPro , Apache 8
K.B. Schaller, journalist, novelist, guest blogger and conference speaker is author of Gray Rainbow Journey (National Best Books Award Winner, USA Book News; Winner, Florida Publishers President’s Best Books Award); and Journey by the Sackcloth Moon (both OakTara). She lives in Plantation, Florida. www.KBSchaller.com