By Kirk Siegler
One of the firefighting teams trying to contain the Rim Fire in and around Yosemite National Park is the Geronimo Hotshots team from San Carlos, Ariz., one of seven elite Native American firefighting crews in the U.S.
On the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, firefighting jobs are one of only a few ways for many young men to earn a living. For team member Jose Alvarez Santi Jr., 25, the work is rewarding — but being away from home fighting fires can be tough.
“I don’t really see it as a job. Being out away from my family — that’s the part that I’m down about, is just being away,” Santi said not long before the team got the call to fight the Rim Fire.
Santi has a 3-year-old son. He’s only seen him for a dozen or so days this entire spring and summer. The 20-member crew works a fire for 14 days, then it’s a long trip home for maybe one or two days of rest, then back out again. This late in the season you can see this is starting to take its toll on a lot of the guys. But they know it’s also good money. In a good year, you could make $40,000. That goes far here.
“Of course the wife’s lovin’ it,” said senior firefighter Tom Patton. “Right now, just can’t wait to get out of here. I wanna go on another fire. It’s our only means of supporting our family.”
As on most reservations, jobs are hard to come by, and most families live well below the poverty line. There are a few jobs with the tribal government or at the small casino on the outskirts of the reservation. But much of the community is dependent on the fire season.