DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — In the 14 days since they first sank their boots into the rugged ground of the Klamath Mountains in northern California, 50-pound backpacks pulling on their shoulders, four wildland firefighters from the White Earth Reservation have worked to stop the fiery devastation surrounding them.
Thanks in part to the work of this Minnesota foursome, a nearly 2,200-acre fire that once threatened lives and caused an evacuation order is now 100% contained. The White Earth Wildland Fire crew, along with as many as 200 other firefighters from all over the country, were dispatched to Fox Fire, several miles southwest of the small town of Callahan.
With that fire now under control, residents of the area have been allowed to return to their homes and resume their normal routines. Yet the White Earth firefighters are still more than 1,800 miles from their homes, and their daily routines right now are far from normal.
From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, they’re toiling and sweating under the heat of flames that get close enough to touch, digging deep fire lines, and cutting down hazard trees to prevent the fire from spreading.
After that, they drive for well over an hour down minimally maintained mountain passes to get back to camp, where they eat a little something and then shiver in their tents all night, the cold, smoky mountain air seeping right through their sleeping bags and under their skin.
The accommodations are humble. The food is nothing to write home about. Showers are rare. And the work is demanding and dangerous.
So, as they see it, what’s not to love?
“I love it,” says Dawson Winter, the youngest member of the crew. At just 19 years old, this California trip is his third and biggest dispatch to date. “It’s everything I expected it to be and more. I’ve never really liked any other job like I like this one — just the work, and the people I work with. You get to see a lot of beautiful country. After we hike up to wherever we need to go ... it’s beautiful.”
Winter is a 2019 graduate of Detroit Lakes High School and an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation. With him in California are Billy Fletcher, 31, of Park Rapids, who’s also in his first year of wildland firefighting; Shawn Niesen, 23, who lives in Waubun and has been on the crew for three years; and Jeremy Londo, the engine boss, who’s the most experienced on the team with more than 20 years of wildland firefighting under his belt.
“It’s exciting,” said Niesen of fighting Fox Fire. “It’s calmed down a lot now, but the first couple days … we were pretty much right on the fire line, like right next to it. It wasn’t big flames coming towards us, it was just smaller ones.”
'This stuff is hard'
The White Earth crew was dispatched to Fox Fire on Sept. 15, one day after the fire started. At first, they were expecting to be on the job for two weeks, but they were later asked to extend their assignment by another seven days. They expect to be back home in about a week.
While the fire they’ve been focused on is contained now, Londo said there are several other fires in the region that still need significant attention.
“It’s calmed down pretty good,” he said of Fox Fire. “When we first got out here, the fire was only a couple days old and it was still pretty active. It was pretty hectic when we first got here… We had a nice cool spell earlier that helped us gain some ground on the fires.”
Throughout the various phases of Fox Fire, the crew said, they’ve routinely hiked for miles a day, trekking through the Klamath National Forest's infamously wooded, rocky mountainsides — “the Klamath Forest is known amongst firefighters as some of the roughest terrain here in California,” Fletcher said.
The mountains reach altitudes of 9,000 feet, and it gets cold up there: Official incident reports state that there have been unseasonably high daytime temperatures reaching into the 80s in recent days, but nighttime lows can dip down to the mid-20s this time of year.
“We’re at a fire camp, and basically we’ve been sleeping in tents on the ground for the last 11 days,” Fletcher said in late September. “We didn’t even get to shower for the first five days.”
Their camp is only 8 to 10 miles away from Fox Fire, he added, but the access roads are so rough that the drive takes an hour and a half.
“It’s a messy fire, in numerous areas, and so certain areas of the fire we have to hike to,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of hiking — a LOT of hiking. I’ve been active all my life, and this stuff is hard. It’s really hard. … And when there’s four guys, you really have to work hard, as opposed to being part of a 20-man crew.”
Londo said it’s been a busy season for wildland firefighting crews. The worst of the wildfire season is still ahead, and yet 2020 has already been a devastating and record-smashing year for wildfires in the U.S.
In California alone, about 8,000 wildfires have destroyed far more land in the state than in any year ever before, damaging nearly 8,000 structures, causing multiple evacuations and taking nearly 30 lives.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy reported that, as of Sept. 28, more than 3.6 million acres had burned, surpassing California’s previous record of 1.9 million acres, set in 2018.
With thousands of fires persisting across the state, and the notoriously dry and windy season happening now into December, it’s likely that many more wildfires are to come, and crews will only have a tougher time extinguishing them.
In the midst of this months-long battle, a success story like the Fox Fire containment is a welcome victory.
‘Fire’s actually a small world’
Before heading out to California for his biggest firefight yet, White Earth crew member Winter traveled last fall to South Carolina, and then earlier this summer to South Dakota, to fight fires there. During the spring fire season, he was in White Earth every day, helping to manage local wildfires and prescribed burns, and working on field management projects such as thinning brush.
That’s what a lot of the members of the White Earth Wildland Fire crew do — a mix of working at home, and away. There are a little over 20 members total on the crew today.
David Snetsigner, a forestry manager at the White Earth Tribal Forestry Office and Winter’s father, has been a part of the wildland fire crew since 2003, making him one of the senior members. He estimates he’s been dispatched to more than 30 assignments over the years. Most of those have been wildfires, but sometimes crew members are called to help with other kinds of natural disasters.
“We’ve sent people down for Hurricane Sandy, and Hurricane Katrina,” for example, Snetsinger said.
Most assignments last at least two weeks plus travel time, but can go longer. Assignments can pop up at any time, and when they do, the available crew members usually get just one day to prepare. Many have families to say goodbye to, employers to alert, other obligations to tend to, and schedules to rearrange before they go.
Every year in White Earth, the crew is called to an average of 80 to 100 wildfires on the reservation. Most of the crew live on or near White Earth, but that’s not a requirement to join. Several crew members are considered tribal employees, while the rest work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But they’re all part of the same crew, and they’re not to be confused with the White Earth Fire Department, which is a separate entity.
Their ages range from 18 up to retirement, and while the crew is mostly made up of men, there are currently two female members. Most of them were inspired to join through word of mouth, usually by a friend or family member who’s on the crew.
For Winter, it was almost inevitable that he’d join: Not only is his dad on the crew, but his grandfather is a former fire chief, his uncle is a current fire chief, and many other family members of his, men and women, either have been or currently are firefighters.
“I have a picture at home of, when I was probably 11, me and my dad watching the firefighters back then,” Winter said. “I think that’s where it all started. It’s been a long time that I’ve wanted to do this.”
Snetsinger said Winter’s uncle was one of the first wildland firefighters in White Earth. That was back in the 1980s, when the program first started. At that time, the tiny crew had just “one little water pump and a van,” he said. “Now, we have like five engines, all kinds of different pieces of equipment … It’s a totally different game now.”
White Earth Nation is just one of many agencies that send wildland fire crews out of state, Snetsinger said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is another, as is the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and others.
“There’s lots of opportunities to get into fire,” he said. “Fire’s actually a small world — you end up seeing people across the country that you know from back home … There’s a lot of the same people that you work with. It’s kind of cool, actually.”
He knows the risks of the job, but said that even so, he doesn’t worry too much about his son being out there, even on bigger fires.
“I know how dangerous it can be in California — I’ve been out there three different times myself,” Snetsinger said. “But I trust who he’s with and I trust the leadership that’s out there with him. To get onto a fire that large and in the mountains, it’s an exciting thing, so I’m happy for him … You don’t always get on the big fire that everyone sees on CNN, so it’s pretty cool for him to get out on something like that.”