By Alan Sorensen
ROCKY BOY It's nearly 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8, and there isn't an empty parking spot available anywhere near the natural resources building on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. The annual powwow ended Sunday and Monday was a tribal holiday, except for the Chippewa Cree Tribe's fire dispatchers and firefighters.
Supervising Dispatcher Gerald Small worked through the weekend and is looking forward to his days off Wednesday and Thursday. But even then, he can't travel far from his home and his phone. Even at the end of long days manning the phones at the Tribal Forestry Office, he spends his evenings and nights near his home phone in case of an emergency call for more crews.
"I don't get a chance to get out of the office to go anywhere and I have to stay by the phone at the house," Small said.
Small has taught elementary school at Rocky Boy for 23 years. He's been part of the fire department for 17 years. In a matter of days, his work schedule will become nearly inhuman.
That's because with the start of the school year, he'll be driving school bus mornings and afternoons, teaching all day and remaining at the forestry office till about midnight every night. And he still has to stay close to the phone when he gets home.
But that's a price he's been willing to pay over the years, even as he was raising seven children. It's a price that a lot of tribal members have been willing to pay over the years, a price that on the fire line can even be one's life.
As of Aug. 8, Rocky Boy had 242 firefighters listed and a handful more who were about to take training. The other six reservations across Montana provide the National Forest Service with firefighters, too.
Different types of crews include logistics, supplies, communications and base camp management, catering, services, shower service. There's also expanded dispatch in which dispatchers handle operations covering multiple fires. Expanded dispatch covers overhead, crews, equipment and supplies.
Rocky Boy has had six 20-man crews on the fire lines around the West for most of the summer. They answered their first call in April in Michigan and have been to Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico. With the exception of one crew that was in Idaho last week, all of Rocky Boy's firefighters were on fire lines in Montana.
Small said each crew consists of a crew rep and a crew boss and that he tries to send one woman firefighter out with each crew. Besides the fire crews, Rocky Boy had five 3-man engine crews out on Aug. 8 and one 10-man camp crew.
Robert "Sonny" Belcourt, director of Rocky Boy's Natural Resources Department, said the firefighters are 16-day rotations. "One day out, one day back, 14 actual days on the fire, with two to three days between," he said. "Because of the fire season, (turn around time) is going much faster than that."
There was something other than smoke in the air at the Rocky Boy Fire Department on Aug. 8. The parking lot is full of cars because word has gotten out that one of the 20-man crews is coming home. Whether they'll be home for a day, two days or just hours, no one knows for sure. But it soon becomes obvious as a Rocky Boy School bus approaches that there is a homecoming at hand.
While wives, sisters, brothers, cousins sit quietly by, their loved ones jump out the back or walk down the steps of the bus with their gear in tow.
They go through their duffel bags on the ground before heading up to the garage to check in and weigh in. Nearly every one of the firefighters has lost weight, generally between 5 and 10 pounds during their two weeks in the field. "Can barely hold my pants up," one called out as he stepped off the scale.
Then its time to take their personal gear and head for the parking lot and a ride home.
Samuel Caplette is among those who heads to his car, wife, Rhonda, and 7-year-old son, Austin, before checking in at the garage. Austin helps him separate out his personal gear before checking out at the garage.
This was Caplette's sixth tour on the fire lines this summer. He expected to be home no more than a couple of days and then be called back out.
Asked how he felt about his father being home, Austin said, "Good." Asked if he would let his father go back out to fight more fires, he replied, "Probably not."
Rhonda said she was excited to have Samuel home, even for a few days, but didn't begrudge his work.
"I'm glad he's out there helping," she said.
For his part, Caplette said the hardest part of fighting fires was "leaving home." This summer, he's been away from home for about 90 days, the better part of three months.
"At 35, I can still handle the hills pretty good," he said. "I don't know about 36, though."
Ask about his most recent trip, firefighting in Canyon Ferry, Caplette said, "Everybody did good."
"We've got all qualified firefighters here pretty much put it out," he said. "We'll do the same thing in a couple of days."
Penny Parker was waiting to take her brother-in-law home. Her mother, Shirley Descharme, left for the fire lines with her camp crew over powwow weekend.
"My whole family's out there," Parker said. "There's just me and my sister at home. My brother and sister are out there, still."
Crew boss John Gardipee was in the dispatch center when the crew arrived. "I got back last Monday," he said. "I'm scheduled to go out with the next call."
Gardipee said that firefighters go by bus to Great Falls and then fly out to out-of-state fires. If the fires are in state like this year, the firefighters are bused. His last fire trip was out of state.
"We flew to Boise and they bused us to Idaho City, hit one fire there, buses us back to Boise, spent one night there and then they bused us to Utah and we fought fires there."
The hardest part of being a crew boss is keeping his firefighters motivated, Gardipee said. It's a problem he doesn't have.
"I get an adrenaline rush, myself," he said.
Few people who have held down the same job for 10 years he's been a crew boss the last three can say the same.
William Lodgepole is the fire management officer at Rocky Boy. He's been in the business of putting out wildfires for 37 years. Nowadays during the fire season, he puts in around-the-clock shifts at the fire station. He also stays ready to fight any fires that might erupt on the reservation.
The Chippewa Cree Tribe of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation is a self-governance tribe. That means all agencies on the reservation are overseen by the Tribal Business Committee and operated by tribal members.
Chippewa Cree Natural Resources oversees Tribe's Forestry Department which operates the fire department. There are no federal bureaucrats looking over the tribal members' shoulders; they are in charge.
The only drawback is payday.
"We send our time keeping to Browning and Fort Belknap because we don't have a federal pay team," Belcourt said.
Staff who see to the mountains of paper work that flows through the Rocky Boy forestry office are Dawn Gamble, Brenda St. Pierre and Dorene Tendoy.
Other key leaders in the fire department are: Mike LaMere, crew rep, crew boss, strike team leader for engines or crews; Maynard Limberhand, human resources specialist, interagency resource rep; Brian Moline, crew rep; Wanda Parker, EMT; Harriet Standing Rock, human resources specialist and IARR; Lana Turner, equipment time reporter, personnel time reporter, expanded dispatch reporter, time unit leader, expanded dispatch support dispatcher.; Harold Watson, crew rep.
"We need (Watson's) expertise if we have a fire on the reservation," Small said.
Rocky Boy was under an extreme fire condition alert during powwow, but that was reduced to serious as the last of the campers departed.