Chumash firefighters take a big step

Chumash firefighters take a big step

26 June 2009

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For the personnel of the Chumash Wildland Fire Department, being on the ground floor of a fairly new operation is a unique opportunity.

“It’s fun starting a new fire department,” said Vince Montes, a two-year member. “Nothing is set in stone. It’s more than just firefighting.”

Founded in 2004 as a basic fire training program, the tribe’s Fire Department is the first to respond to a wildland fire on the Chumash Reservation in Santa Ynez — an area of about 150 acres.

Coverage of structures and the Chumash Casino Resort is the responsibility of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

However, the coverage area and responsibilities for the tribal department expanded dramatically last week under a joint fire protection agreement with Los Padres National Forest — the first-ever pact between the tribe and forest for wildland fire prevention, detection and suppression efforts in their joint protection areas.

The large coverage area of Forest Service lands spans from Santa Maria and Highway 166 on the north to Montecito on the south.

Before adopting the agreement Friday with Los Padres National Forest, the department had been dispatched out of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office in San Bernardino to wildland fires in an area covering most of Southern California and sometimes nationally if needed.

J.P. Zavalla, the department’s battalion chief, has been a part of the unit since its inception.

The uniform shoulder patch he designed says “caretakers of the land,” in Samala, the language of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

One of four on the seven-member fire staff who is of Chumash descent, Zavalla grew up on the Santa Ynez reservation and is a Santa Ynez Valley Union High School graduate.

In a career of more than 20 years in firefighting, Zavalla started out as a 19-year-old on a Los Padres hotshots crew — a 20-firefighter team assigned to cut fire lines with hand tools.

After five years with the hotshots, Zavalla spent nine years as a smoke jumper in Montana and Idaho, parachuting into fires that were caused mostly by lightning.

Having grown up on the reservation, Zavalla said, it is important to show children and youth the opportunities they have in careers outside of the reservation.

“There’s other options for them,” he said.

It is also essential to serve as a professional role model, Zavalla said.

Montes, a fire apparatus operator who is also a SYVUHS graduate, began his 12-year firefighting career just two weeks after high school graduation on a Los Padres hotshots crew. He is of Tejon Indian descent.

He described the Chumash department, consisting of one battalion chief, one captain, two fire appa-ratus operators, two firefighters, and one firefighter-dispatcher, as a tight-knit family.

Monica Herrera, the firefighter-dispatcher, works at the Los Padres dispatch center in Santa Maria. She is the only woman on the department. The other members are David Young, Armin Hernandez and Gilbert Romero.

Under the terms of the Los Padres deal, the tribe will provide a dispatcher at the national forest dispatch center; the tribe’s Fire Department will be listed as an initial attack resource by the Forest Service; the tribe’s fire engines will cover Los Padres fire stations when needed and vice versa; the tribe’s firefighters will be called to local wildland fires within the Los Padres forest response areas; and they will be available for special assignments and rehab work on an assistance-by-hire basis.

The five-year agreement includes an annual operating plan — updated yearly to take into account new apparatus.

Zavalla said the next move for the department is to reach a mutual aid agreement with the county Fire Department to allow Chumash fire crews to respond to structure fires on the reservation and in the Santa Ynez area.

As a national resource, the department potentially could also be deployed anywhere in the country.

A three-man team is heading to Arizona this week to assist other tribes who can’t afford full fire staffing. They’ll rotate back home after 30 days.

Last year, Chumash fire crews spent two months in the Albuquerque, N.M., area covering eight tribal towns. Personnel have also helped out at the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base during the recent Jesusita Fire in Santa Barbara and fires in the Los Padres forest.

Day-to-day operations consist mostly of exercising to stay in shape and drills two to three times a week to stay sharp.

Apparatus consist of a Type 3 engine, a 500-gallon tank wildland fire engine commonly used in California, and a Type 6 engine, a heavy-duty Dodge truck with a 250-gallon tank commonly used for reaching areas on narrow roads.

The largest local threat is the wildland-urban interface, when rural environments abut man-made developments, according to Jay Kennedy, an engineer and an emergency medical technician. Also a former Los Padres hotshot, Kennedy spent time on the Zaca, Day, and Jesusita fires.

A key function of the department is cultural resource management — rehabilitation of burned heritage sites with rock or cave paintings or trails.

Its reserve basic wildland course, focused mostly on rehabilitation of tribal cultural sites, is a 32-hour program over five days, including a 3-mile hike with 45 pounds of gear in 45 minutes, part of a “pack test” national standard.

The course is held once a year in April and also offers a refresher course and pack test for those who have previously qualified. Open to men and women, about 25 people go through the program annually.

A dozen hours of training with Michael Glassow, a UCSB anthropology professor, is dedicated to culture resource training.

The department is based in a trailer between the tri-bal hall and casino just off Highway 246. There is also a shed for parking the fire engine and fitness equipment.

Willie Wyatt, tribal administrator, said long-term plan calls for a permanent fire station.

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