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Before homes 'burned to the ground,' but now Standing Rock tribe finally getting fire department

Standing Rock firefighter Kirby White Bull works with fire hose during a trainng drill on Wednesday morning in Fort Yates. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune1 / 2
Standing Rock Fire Department firefighter Dale Harrison gets ready to connect a fire hose to a hydrant while in a training drill in Fort Yates on Wednesday morning. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune2 / 2

FORT YATES, N.D. — The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has used a federal grant to start a volunteer fire program.

Last year, the tribe received a more than $260,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recruit and train volunteer firefighters. Through the grant, the Akicita Fire Program was established.

A long-term goal for the tribe is to create a department staffed 24/7 by professional firefighters. The tribe has never had a structural fire station nor a group of individuals trained to suppress structural fires.

"This is going to be a first for Standing Rock," said Tribal Chairman Mike Faith. "We've talked about it over the years, and it's become a reality within a short period of time."

A group of 14 to 18 men have been training in the volunteer fire program since April. The grant is managed by Heartland Consulting Group, an emergency management consulting firm based in Bismarck.

Last week, the volunteers hooked up a fire hose to a Bureau of Indian Affairs fire truck and carried the hose to an abandoned gas station for a mock fire drill.

Kurt Stein, an instructor with Heartland Consulting Group, has been training the volunteers once a week in the Tribal Employment Rights Office building in Fort Yates. The group began conducting full-fledged fire exercises this week, with about a month left before graduation.

The volunteers shook off their first-time jitters and ran a drill at the tribal administration building last week, where two people posed as victims who needed to be rescued from the faux burning building.

"It's been a learning experience. A lot of knowledge in a short period of time," said volunteer firefighter Wyatt Red Tomahawk, 32. "The community doesn't have a structural fire department, so it'd be nice to be a part of the foundation that's being laid for future firefighters."

The volunteers are ages 19 to 56. Some have experience with the BIA Forestry and Wildland Fire Management in Fort Yates, while others have no experience at all.

Daniel Eagleshield, 19, a student at Sitting Bull College, decided to volunteer for the program to gain experience. At the training last week, Eagleshield said he's familiar with wearing heavy firefighter gear, as he once played football.

"I thought (the fire program) was a good opportunity to gain some experience," he said. "Honestly, I've thought about pursuing firefighting as a career."

On the reservation, which spans 2.3 million acres of land, the only fire suppression team is the BIA Wildland Forestry and Fire Management, which responds only to wildfires. The BIA once operated a fire station in Fort Yates, but that was established only to protect federally owned buildings.

"We don't have a structural fire department, so if we have a fire, the house just burns to the ground," said Elliott Ward, tribal emergency manager.

Because the FEMA grant didn't cover any structural fire equipment, Ward contacted the BIA to request equipment, including two trucks and the old Fort Yates Fire Station; the building will be used to house the new volunteer fire program.

Because the reservations sits in North Dakota and South Dakota, Faith said the tribe would like to set up two fire stations: one in Fort Yates and one in Little Eagle, S.D., or nearby in McLaughlin, S.D.

Faith says he's encouraged by the volunteer fire department. Last week, he spoke at the Sitting Bull College student summit to encourage students to pursue fields in fire management. The volunteer fire department may not be a "fix-all," he said, but "if we respond and save one life, it's well worth it."

The tribe's last fire fatality was in May, when a 58-year-old man was killed and a boy was injured in a mobile home fire in Fort Yates township. Faith said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called to investigate, and evidently the fire was caused by a space heater being placed too close to furniture.

Since then, there have been a few structure fires, including at an abandoned mobile home, and at two school storage buildings, which burned within the span of three weeks.

"Arson, who knows," Faith said.

The tribe's two-year FEMA grant will end November 2019, according to Derek Hanson, president and CEO of Heartland Consulting Group. In March, the fire program will train a second group of volunteers, he said.

After the FEMA grant runs out, Faith said the tribe hopes to sustain the program by reviewing a variety of funding options, including additional grants and insurance savings. High premiums for homes on the reservation could be reduced if there's a structural fire department.

"The bottom line is to try to be self-sufficient into the future," Faith said.

The volunteer fire program, once established, will only respond within the reservation boundaries, but eventually Faith said signing agreements with towns beyond the reservation borders is being considered.

For more information on the Akicita Fire Program, visit www.akicitafire.org.

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