CROW AGENCY — The first day at a new job is a momentous occasion.
That’s especially true for the seven Bureau of Indian Affairs Crow Fire rookies who were sent to the front line on their first day.
“I thought we’d wait until like August or July, late you know, like I didn’t think we’d be working, and then the second day we were training, it’s just like, are we gonna be able to go?” said Bradie Pretty Weasel, 25, one of seven fire rookies.
The answer was yes, as wildfire season on the Crow Reservation began early with the Buffalo Pasture Fire igniting on June 15 in the Bighorn Mountains.
“We were expecting to wait a little bit longer, but everything popped up,” said Leah Takesenemy, 19, who went through rookie school with her 21-year-old brother Tuff.
After seven fast-paced days in rookie school, the final day gave the rookies some real-life experience.
“We’re pretty much at the last day, so, yeah, we’re getting in there,” said Bobby Pease, 19, one of this year’s rookie wildland firefighters.
Veteran crew members were also surprised to see fire season begin so soon.
“It looks like it’s going to be an early fire season. It looks like it’s started right now. Just recent years, we had hardly any moisture,” said Karl Bighair, 46, BIA Crow Fire lead engine foreman.
“Especially here in the Bighorns, I mean, we rarely ever get fires up here in the Bighorns and it was a shock,” said TyLynn Left Hand, who is in her eighth fire season and second year as a BIA helicopter crew member.
The Bighorn Mountains are one of three mountain ranges within the reservation.
“The Wolfs, the Bighorns, and the Pryors,” explained rookie Kordell Bighail.
“They all hold a different significance for all of us. We like to think of them as sacred, and where we can go to clear our heads and find meditation and peace. So, for us, for a long time, these mountains have been really special to us,” said Bighail.
The rookies are drawn to the mountains through a special connection, and they were drawn to the job through a special bond.
“My family has all been firefighters. My káales (grandmothers) were the first female firefighters, so it’s always been like a dream to follow their footsteps,” said Pretty Weasel.
“Our grandpa joined a while back and that inspired my dad to do it, then growing up and watching our dad doing it, made us want to join,” said Leah Takesenemy.
“My dad started back in 1987/1988 and he did seven seasons and that’s what really got me going,” said Pease.
“My family has been doing it for a few generations now. My grandparents and my great grandparents as well as my uncle who is a helitack, my great uncle who is a wildland firefighter also, and so I’m just trying to carry on the tradition,” Bighail said.
Whether they do it for one season or make it a career, the possibilities begin with rookie school.
“It’s really up to the person. If they come to the rookie school, they’ll find out if they like it or not. If they like it, they can make a career out of it just like me, when back in 93 I just tried it out to see how it was. But now I made a career out of it and I love my job,” Bighair said.
During a fire season where the department could use all the help they could get, interest is lacking.
“My rookie year, man, there was like maybe four crews, and now seeing the rookies, we’re getting less and less. Like last year, we had 29, 28 rookies, and this year there is only seven,” said Bighair.
As the seven rookies got their first glance at the scorched remains of Little Bull Elk Canyon over the weekend, reality set in, as they are now the next generation of wildland firefighters.
“I’ve heard stories from family, friends, that have all been doing this for 20-something years, 30-something years, and they tell me it’s actually a lot of fun. You get to go to a lot of places you’ve never been before. So I’d advise, if you like being outdoors and the wilderness and stuff, and don’t mind the heat, it’s something to get into,” Bighail said.
The Buffalo Pasture Fire grew to 328 acres on Friday.
The team’s main objective is to suppress the fire and make sure it doesn’t spread to other parts of the mountain.
Fire officials said the fire is helping in a way, as it replenishes the forest floor by clearing out old, dead timber.