DEQ monitors cultural significant locations during Verde Fire near Ft. McDowell reservation


Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News



When a wildfire breaks out, the objective is to extinguish the flames before life and home are threatened, but so is protecting the cultural lands of Native people. When the Verde Fire broke out on Aug. 3, near the Fort McDowell Yavapai Apache Nation, fire crews from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Nations crew from the Gila River Indian Community were on-station to fight the blaze, but so were representatives from Community departments to mitigate the cultural preservation of the threatened land. 


“It’s a real credit to the agencies, who recognize the Community as a stakeholder, to have resource advisors from here to be present on the fire,” said Russell Benford, Department of Environmental Quality - Environmental Program Manager. 


He said having resource advisors on wildfires, brings an added layer of awareness about cultural sites, that are at risk of being destroyed by fires. “It allows us (The Community) to have a voice in how the incident is managed during the actual incident and after the fire is put out,” said Benford. 


“I was brought in as a resource manager to provide information regarding the ecological assets that may be threatened by the Verde Fire,” said Benford. He said his job had two parts, to identify wildlife and vegetation that are of cultural importance to the Community and that may be impacted by the fire, and to help incident commanders better understand the possible effects of suppression actions such as fire retardant (slurry), fuels breaks, heavy vehicle use, etc. on the environment. 


He said on the Woodbury Fire, cultural resource advisors were able to help wildland fire personnel protect traditional sites in the Tonto National Monument. He said, “Little details, like you can’t put staples on the structures. They wanted to put up a reflective blanket to keep heat away from the wooden beams, but the Community’s advisors said you can’t use staples on them, so they used rope to secure the blankets to the structures.” Resource advisors also provided perspective on a centuries-old mesquite tree and thousands of saguaro cacti that had potential to be impacted by the fire. 


Additionally, Emery Manuel from the Cultural Resource Management Department was enlisted to help with advisement on the fire. “Their [Mr. Manuel’s and other resource advisors’] participation was critical to ensuring that the Cultural and Ecological values as identified by Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation (FMYN) would be taken into consideration if the fire moved onto their lands,” said Alan Sinclair, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fire Management Officer. 


Other personnel, who responded to the Verde Fire, were a Pima Agency Type II Interagency Crew and Geronimo Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC). The crews worked to prevent a section of the fire from reaching Fort McDowell Yavapai Apache Nation. 


The Pima Agency Type II crew consisted of Community members and individuals from other tribal communities, while on the Geronimo IHC, Julian Murgia, a Community member, who was hired to join the hot shot crew this fire season. 


Community members and staff play meaningful roles on the initial attack, suppression and cleanup of wildfires in the region. Forward-thinking leaders of the Community encourage and facilitate the participation of these technical experts by maintaining productive relationships with interagency partners, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and United States Forest Service. Because these individuals are involved, the Community’s interests and ancestral resources are better considered and protected.