By Tim Eberly
Members of Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap's firefighting crews think they were treated improperly when they were demobilized for disciplinary reasons after fighting an August fire in the Gallatin National Forest near Gardiner. Now officials with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Gallatin National Forest are investigating the incident.
As the 80 firefighters four 20-person teams from the Rocky Boy, Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet reservations returned to their various campsites Aug. 28 after tending to the Little Joe fire north of Yellowstone National Park, law enforcement officers were waiting for them, Rocky Boy crew boss Johnny Rainingbird said. The officers curtly informed the firefighters of their demobilization due to a food storage violation in camp and said they had 10 minutes to gather their things and leave, Belcourt said.
The Rocky Boy crew's bus was stopped at a checkpoint by two Forest Service rangers and one local sheriff's deputy and escorted to their campsite. Rich Inman, the acting Gallatin National Forest supervisor, said the firefighters had been suitably briefed about the Gallatin's zero-tolerance food storage policy when they arrived at the forest.
"They were more or less given the hobo rush," said Robert Belcourt, the natural resources director for Rocky Boy. "That's kind of what other word can I use? racism. They (firefighters) said they actually left camp with their heads down. They didn't have to be treated like criminals."
J.W. Allendorf, the supervisor of the two Forest Service officers who were at the scene, said he is certain his officers conducted themselves properly. He spoke with one of the officers about the incident.
"We don't get into losing our temper," Allendorf said. "These are trained professionals. They deal with this routinely."
Almost a week after the demobilization, Chippewa Cree Tribe officials on Sept. 4 sent a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as the National Interagency Fire Center, requesting a complete investigation into the demobilization. The Fort Belknap Agency also registered a formal complaint with the BIA regional office in Billings, said Cleo Hamilton, superintendent for Fort Belknap's BIA.
"We just want an investigation to see exactly what went on," Rocky Boy chief of staff Richard Sangrey said. "We feel the penalties imposed are a little harsh and the way our people were treated out on the fire line was a little out of line."
Said Keith Beartusk, the regional director of the Rocky Mountain BIA regional office in Billings: "We are gathering information from the tribes, crew bosses and firefighters. We are very much concerned about it and hope there is no serious problem. But we are very concerned about what we see on the surface."
Gallatin National Forest is standing firm in its zero-tolerance food policy in grizzly bear country. Inman said food was found in tents and garbage was on the ground both direct violations of policy and prime grizzly bear attractants. Though Inman would not provide details, an Aug. 31 Associated Press story specified that bagels, cream cheese, Gatorade and eating utensils were located on the ground in the crew's sleeping area.
"It's a safety violation," Inman said. "One of the objectives of the firefighters is to have absolutely no food in the sleeping area. Everybody was briefed on that; they had to raise their hands and say, Yes, I understand.'
Belcourt said he spoke to several of the demobilized firefighters, who told him they canvassed the camping area before departing and found only four cigarette butts on the ground.
"Nobody briefed us that morning. We weren't there long enough to be briefed," said Rainingbird, whose crew had flown in the previous day from a 13-day firefighting stint in Grass Valley, Nev. "It was the most humiliating thing that's ever happened to me in 20 years of firefighting. They made us the laughingstock."