Choctaw firefighters home after battling out-of-state wild land fire
By STEPHENIE OCHOAChoctaw Nation of Oklahoma DURANT, Okla. – Recently, two forestry team members returned from a 16-day stent in Arizona battling an intense fire on Apache lands. Prevention tech Joshua Bates and Wallace Kitchel, dozer operator, were dispatched to the fire due to the need for special fire fighting techniques. The Choctaw Nation Tribal Forestry Services Department is a unique forestry wild land fire-fighting unit within the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma departmental services covering the entire tribal lands of the Nation. The highly specialized forestry team is comprised of a 6-man crew whose certifications include very dangerous and arduous physical task achievements along with unique skill sets required to be in the department. Some members have mechanical training, some are prevention officers but all can be called for a specific position within forest fires. The Choctaw Nation Forestry Department is nestled within the Talihina city limits and is one of the few departments on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and always ready to respond anywhere within the 10 1/2 county stretch. The team is also ready to respond to other area dispatches from the Oklahoma Forestry Department whom can pull them into any Oklahoma forested area, as well as other heavily forested states, specifically if tribal lands. In addition to fighting forest fires, the team also responds to calls for help during or after natural disasters such as with Hurricane Sandy. Areas the team has been called to include Arizona, California, Oregon, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Louisiana. According to the Director of Forestry, Tom Lowry, “In order to be a forestry firefighter you must be highly trained and motivated to help, but also be able to function during unimaginable stress. These guys have the toughest job in the worst conditions and there are lives at stake. Lowry explained the rigorous training that is involved for every wild land firefighter, "because mistakes can cause lives to be lost, forestry crews are continually updating, adding to or perfecting their skills. They each have personalized planning programs for achieving better knowledge. Many of the tasks they strive to perfect have to be successfully completed three times to get certified in the skill set, and once certification is acquired for this job, they will keep up with retraining efforts to stay up to date." Wild land firefighters are different from traditional fire fighting teams in that they are focused only on the lands and individuals within those areas. If a house or building is on fire, the forestry team will focus more on the land that the structure is on and the lands relative to it versus the building. Also, the methods for fighting land fires vary greatly from structure fires. Clearing the path of a fire, digging fire lines, and burning out fires are the most common ways these unique firefighters use. Lowry added that he is proud of the team and they all possess unique talents or gifts that allow them to work well as a team. He says, "This crew, they never even blink an eye at what has to be done, they just do it. They have been together for many years and they function more as a family than as coworkers and this is what makes them great." Bates says everybody on the team has the same set of goals within the department, “We just want to protect lives and property and then to come home safely.” Bates has been with the department and has seen many trips throughout the country along with many other fires on home ground and describes fighting fires by saying, “Good communication is important and every fire is different. You have to do whatever you can to get a fire stopped to keep people and places safe.” Bates also stated that forestry fire crews are all very talented individuals and he appreciates the opportunity to meet such amazing people.