Beartown Firefighters ready for action

L’ANSE – For now, the Beartown Firefighters are waiting and training. When the call comes, they’ll be on the bus within hours, ready to risk their lives facing wild fires anywhere in the nation with no more than chain saws and hand tools. They will hike several miles each day in sometimes 100-degree heat, carrying at least 65 pounds, and working 200 to 300 hours in an average two-week detail, usually while sleeping in tents.

“It’s dirty, hot and you’re climbing mountains,” said Beartown Chairman George DeCota, who admitted turnover is high among new recruits to the fire crews. But others come back summer after summer. Why?

“The love of it, the excitement,” DeCota said. “It’s dangerous, but we like it for some reason.”

Last summer, DeCota said, a Beartown 20-man crew worked a couple of fires on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, 260 miles south of where 19 firefighters died fighting another fire.

“We were out there at the same time,” DeCota remembered.

Beartown crews have had to abandon positions and have been in situations where they were overcome by smoke, but lookouts have always recognized fires’ danger signs in time for retreat.

“There’s no fire out there that’s worth a life,” said Crew Boss Charlie Gauthier. “Houses and all those things can be replaced. It’s hard, but you can’t replace a life.”

“You bring 20 out there, you want to bring 20 back,” added DeCota.

So far, however, Beartown hasn’t had a serious injury in more than a decade of fighting fires, though Gauthier said a few members have had to go to the hospital because of dehydration.

“That’s why we focus on fitness, fitness, fitness,” DeCota said.

To qualify for a crew, each Beartown firefighter has to pass a pack test hiking 3 miles carrying 45 pounds in 45 minutes or less and is expected to participate in and score well on the Bureau of Indian Affairs Fitness Challenge.

There are currently about 50 to 60 people on the crew. About 90 percent are Keweenaw Bay Indian Community members, with a handful of non-Natives and Natives from other tribes, DeCota said. There are about half a dozen women, including a veteran crew boss. There’s currently one 20-person crew “on the board,” meaning they’re available for immediate deployment.

Beartown’s is officially designated a Type 2 Initial Attack Crew, meaning it’s capable of breaking down into two squads that operate independently, though Gauthier said they avoid that as much as possible. Crews might use bulldozers to cut a fire line if they’re available at the scene, but usually their only tools are what they carry though they may work in conjunction with helicopters.

Usually, DeCota said, they work in national forests, though they’ve been called out for other situations, and even other types of disasters, such as an ice storm and a hurricane.

When there’s work, the money can be good, DeCota said, with hazard pay and overtime.

So far though, DeCota said, this has been a slow year for the Beartown Firefighters, with none of the spring fires downstate and in Minnesota they’ve often been called out for in the past. The national fire danger currently stands at level two, he added, while Beartown doesn’t usually get called outside the region until that indicator hits level four or five. Last year was also slow, with the crew only deployed for four days, plus travel time.

The norm, DeCota said, is two to four deployments per summer, though in 2012 Beartown was deployed eight times.

“It was a long, hard summer. There were some tired boys by the end of the summer that year,” he said.

For now, Beartown is ready to roll, just not exactly anxious.

“We like fire, but we don’t want fire,” DeCota said. “We’re human and we’ve seen what it can do. But when the call comes, we’re ready for it.”