Canada When there is a wildfire anywhere in the Cherokee Nation’s 14-county jurisdiction – and sometimes outside it – there is a group of emergency responders ready to lend its expertise.
The Cherokee Nation Wildland Fire Program is the latest incarnation of the tribe’s long-standing firefighting and fire prevention efforts.
“There are no longer any Fire Dancers or Fire Rangers,” said DeWayne Chuckluck, fire coordinator. “Now it is just one program.”
Chuckluck was hired in July 2016 to coordinate and assign the Nation’s firefighting assets as they are needed, and where they might be of the most assistance.
“We have 18,” Chuckluck said. “Some of those are sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, others are sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service. Who gets sent out can depend on who makes the call.”
For the WFP, the primary responsibility is fire protection and education within the Cherokee Nation.
“I respond to about 80 percent of the tribal fire calls within the 14-county jurisdiction,” Chuckluck said. “I can’t make it to all of them. If I don’t make it, I go as soon as possible to make sure the fire was on tribal land, and I have a GPS to help assess that.”
The program responds to structure fires, but is often among the departments called to fight conflagrations of brush, grass and forest.
“We also monitor prescribed burning,” Chuckluck said. “The tribe owns several pine plantations, many of them around Kenwood, and there is often planned burning. We are supposed to oversee some burns around Kenwood early this year.”
Though its first concern is with Cherokee lands, the WFP also responds to outside calls for help.
“We were in Tennessee right around the first of November, during the really bad fires, and didn’t get back until right before Thanksgiving,” Chuckluck said. “We were over there helping in the Cherokee National Forest. It was so dry in Tennessee and they had multiple fires. We get called because enough resources aren’t available.”
While the Cherokee Nation program answers as many outside calls as it can, the danger at home must be considered when deciding to respond.
“If it had been really dry here, we wouldn’t have been able to leave,” Chuckluck said. “Whether we can go out or not – a lot can depend on our weather.”
Chuckluck said the Nation’s WFP gets as many as 20 outside calls in an active year, but typically receives 8-10 requests. California commonly calls in.
“We had some of our firefighters go out to northern California this year,” Chuckluck said. “We get called somewhere out west every year – somewhere from Colorado on out.”
The Cherokee Nation first established its Fire Dancers program in 1988. Today, the nation provides the WFP one fire truck, and another is supplied by the BIA. Chuckluck said most of the funding for firefighting comes from federal agencies.
“We get preparedness money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which funds some of the operational side” he said. “That also gets some funding from the tribe. But the salaries of the 18 who go out, they are not paid by the tribe, but by either the Forest Service or the U.S. Department of the Interior. My salary is paid by the tribe.”
Chuckluck was hired for his experience with tribal firefighting units. His career included a stop in Wyandotte before serving with the Cherokee and Quapaw tribes.
“I came from a structural fire background,” he said. “That is where I started 21 years ago. But I started running into a lot of timber and grass fires, and I enjoyed working those more than houses or cars. A few years ago, I got qualified in wildland fire training and drifted away from structures. I enjoy it. I like being out in nature and walking through the woods.”