Elite Wildland Firefighters Are The Pride Of The Blackfeet Reservation

Sep 1, 2018
Originally published on September 1, 2018 12:05 pm

Lyle St. Goddard, 56, is running along a dirt trail on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.

"It takes me about a lap to loosen up," he says.

Being a hotshot is a young man's game and St. Goddard believes he's one of the oldest hotshot crew members in the country.

"I still can do it," he says. "I just got to keep in shape. I'll be okay."

St. Goddard supervises the Chief Mountain Hotshots, one of the big employers of young men and women on the reservation. They only hire Natives and they can promise good pay and the chance to travel all over the country.

Hotshots are like the special forces of fighting fire – there are only around 100 teams in the country – and Chief Mountain is one of seven Native American hotshot crews.

Summer after summer, St. Goddard's team will spend weeks in smoke and heat, hiking up mountains, digging fire-lines and cutting down trees. They have to keep in shape and St. Goddard runs his crew with the discipline of a military unit.

"Like Marines," he says.

Hotshot crews are some of the most highly-trained and in-shape firefighters in the world. They run seven-minute miles and can work 16 hours a day on a fire.

They were first called "hotshots" back in the 1940s because they fought the hottest parts of a fire.

St. Goddard says it's like battling a monster.

"A monster that you haven't seen what it can do," he says.

Fighting these "monsters" has become more dangerous nowadays because the climate is changing, the forests are thicker and drier, and there are more homes are in fire-prone areas.

"I try to get myself as ready as possible," Dakota Running Crane says.

He's a shy 23-year-old with a wispy, blonde goatee. He says too much booze and partying dog a lot of young men in rural Montana.

But those bad habits need to end at the chain link gates outside of Chief Mountain's headquarters because the hotshot team doesn't tolerate lateness, drinking or drug use.

"It's nice to be on a crew that don't do any of that stuff," Running Crane says. "We don't have to worry about another person being not in their right mind."

But you're also gone from your family for weeks which puts pressure on a marriage. A lot of guys end up divorced. You're also putting your life on the line.

St. Goddard said it's like back in the pre-settlement days.

"The Blackfeet used to go out and hunt or go on war path and be gone for days," he says. "And some of them wouldn't come back. We're no different. In the modern days we go out for 14 days and some of us don't come back."

Over the past decade, around 170 wildland firefighters have died while on duty. Chief Mountain has only ever lost one crew member but the risk hangs like the misty, blue clouds over the trail where St. Goddard is running.

As he finishes the first lap of his run he tells me he's trying to hit a seven minute mile—and he makes it.

But as one of the oldest hot shots in the country, it's getting tougher and tougher every season.

"I always say, 'I want to quit.' It would've been this month I could retire," he says. "But I'll go this far with them, might as well go another year."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2018 Yellowstone Public Radio. To see more, visit Yellowstone Public Radio.


The line of immigrants applying to become U.S. citizens has become longer. There's been a backlog of citizen applications for years, but it has increased dramatically since President Trump took office. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, immigrant advocates say this has become the Trump administration's second wall.

SAMUEL BIANCO: OK. And this is a question you need to remember...

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: On a recent evening, three immigrants are sitting in a small airless room in San Francisco for a free citizenship class. Their instructor dictates some key facts about American civics, slowly, so they can take notes.

BIANCO: The president lives in the White House. Congress makes new laws.

GONZALES: The instructor, Samuel Bianco, works for the International Institute of the Bay Area, a group that provides legal immigration services. Bianco's students are lawful, permanent residents preparing for the U.S. citizenship test and interview. But for some applicants, the hardest part may not be the test. It may be in getting an appointment to take it, says Samuel Bianco.

BIANCO: Before the 2016 election, generally, applications would take four, five, six months to process. And now, they're taking 10 months to a year.

GONZALES: The wait is longest in cities with large immigrant communities. In Washington, D.C., it can take up to 16 months; New York City, 21 months; Atlanta, 22 months.

DIEGO INIGUEZ-LOPEZ: This is, in the best situation, a form of ineffective bad government.

GONZALES: Diego Iniguez-Lopez is with the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups.

INIGUEZ-LOPEZ: In the worst-case scenario, it's a form of voter suppression from an agency that's becoming more and more a part of the Trump administration's agenda against immigrants.

GONZALES: Iniguez-Lopez's organization has studied the backlog that it calls Trump's second wall. According to the most recent government data, there are more than 750,000 pending applications for citizenship. That's almost double the number in 2014 and up nearly 20 percent since Trump took office. Administration officials reject the idea that they are anti-immigrant. They say there's a simple explanation for the backlog - more people are applying to become citizens. And they point out that the total number of people who are naturalized each year has remained virtually unchanged.

But there are other factors that have slowed down the process. First, during the Obama administration, the citizenship application doubled in size to 21 pages. Then, the Trump administration made the interview process even more rigorous. Instructor Samuel Bianco says that can be time-consuming.

BIANCO: Students are coming back, and they're talking about being asked about every single bit of information, no matter how minute it may be, in that application. And so yes, we feel that the citizenship interview is tightening.

GONZALES: One of Bianco's students, Dennis, spends hours preparing for his interview.

DENNIS: And the Civil War and the World War II, World War I...

GONZALES: He's a former diplomat and asked that we only use his first name because he fears reprisals against his family in Venezuela. Dennis says he's already submitted his application with his fingerprints and paid the $725 fee.

DENNIS: Yeah. It's very - I am nervous (laughter).

GONZALES: Dennis says he's worried about passing but tries to imagine how he'll feel the day he becomes a citizen.

DENNIS: I am - celebrate. I am very happy. I feel very good for...

GONZALES: Dennis's interview and citizenship test is scheduled for next week. He's been waiting 10 months.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.