Native American crews fighting Gatlinburg wildfires


GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Firefighting crews from several Native American tribes have been battling the deadly wildfires in Sevier County.

“We had a lot of Native American crews — Navajo, Apache, and others — on this fire,” said Warren Bielenberg, a spokesman at the wildfire command center. “This is because this fire hit when most of the fire crews across the country had shut down for the end of fire season. The Native American crews were the only ones still active.”

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Bielenberg said among the crews in Sevier County are the Navajo Scout Type 2 Initial Attack Crew, Mescalero Apache, Fort Apache No. 1, Hopi 1, San Carlos No. 2, Warm Springs No. 1, Warm Springs No. 2 and Chief Mountain IHC. Native Americans also are staffing camp crews, including those from Fort Apache, Ariz., and the Great Onyx Job Corps at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
William Smith is squad boss of a 20-man crew of the Navajo team that has been working on the fires since Nov. 29, the day after a hurricane-force wind sent the blaze on a rampage through Gatlinburg and surrounding communities. Previously the crew had been working on a fire in North Carolina.

He said his crew will be active until the end of December.
When asked whether he felt a measure of pride that Native Americans were playing a big part in the fire fight, Smith responded, “I certainly do.

“I love helping out people and communities that are affected by fires and getting them back in their homes,” Smith said. “I don’t mind interacting with them and seeing what I can do to help out.”

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His crew is from Fort Defiance, Ariz., near the Navajo Nation headquarters in Window Rock, Ariz.

He said this fire has been a challenge.

“I have done firefighting for 11 years,” he said. “This one is pretty bad. I have never seen anything like it. Totally shocking.”

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Smith said his crew has been helping to secure the perimeter around the Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the fire began.

The crew is slated to go home Wednesday after a 14-day deployment. Crews are usually on 14-day rotations unless needed to stay longer.