Ft. Apache Agency honoree of Pulaski Award at ceremony at Hon-Dah Casino.

WMAT Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood stands (center) surrounded by members of the Ft. Apache Fire Agency. The tribe and the agency were named as one of the recipients of the Pulaski Award for cooperative forest thinning efforts in the Coronado National Forest.

HON DAH — Hot Shots and firefighters with the Ft. Apache Agency on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, along with the Western Region BIA, Coronado National Forest-Sierra Vista Ranger District, and the Coronado National Forest Supervisor’s Office, were recently chosen as recipients of the Pulaski Award for the thinning and forest treatments they accomplished on about 110 acres in the Sierra Vista Ranger District.

“The partners excelled in the areas of interagency collaboration and outstanding performance on a wildland fire management project, which included thinning excess vegetation and prescribed burning by the Ft. Apache Agency Fuels Crew to reduce hazardous fuels on the Sierra Vista Ranger District,” the Forest Service announcement of the award to the WMAT states.

At the award ceremony at Hon-Dah Casino Thursday, June 27, the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s first-ever woman Chairperson, Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, said it is an example of what can happen when people work together for a common goal.

She said it was also an opportunity for the Apache people to help preserve and safeguard some of their sacred ancestral roaming grounds.

“A lot can be accomplished working hand-in-hand. When that happens, great things happen,” she said. “This (the thinning project) is something you can hang your hat on.”

She went on to say that the lands treated in the project in the Sierra Vista District was a spiritual experience in part because the Apache people were again walking in the footsteps of their forefathers who roamed the land before man-made jurisdictions/boundaries were put in place forcing the Apache off of much of their ancestral grounds and onto reservations.

She said the Apache people both then and now share common sacrifices and that just as it was for their forefathers, they are still stewards of the land and this was an opportunity to cross cultural barriers and work together with others for the common good — the mitigation of catastrophic wildfires in a fire-prone part of the state.

In closing, Gatewood thanked all who were involved in the project that led to the tribe receiving the Pulaski Award, and especially to the members of the tribe involved.

Leroy Burnette, Forestry Technician for the Ft. Apache Agency, said it took about a month and a half to do all that needed to be done in an area that has some very rugged terrain. 

The Ft. Apache Agency Hotshots also participated in an 1,169-acre prescribed burn in the Sierra Vista Ranger District that took place March 5.

Within that terrain is the Cochise Stronghold, lands that are sacred to the Apache. Legend has it that the famous Apache leader Cochise is buried in a secret place somewhere in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Burnette said the thinning was necessary because of the thick layer of ground fuels, dead trees and foliage in that part of the Sierra Vista District.

He said he sees far too much untreated forest lands noting that work on the White Mountain Apache Reservation has been and is ongoing.

He said they are currently working areas east of Whiteriver towards McNary. Burnette said other communities should consider following the example of the WMAT and do a lot more thinning and clean up of fuels in our forests.

Sierra Vista Ranger District Supervisor Daisy Kinsey echoed Burnette’s sentiments about interagency cooperation to achieve a common goal.

She said working together was a way for Apache firefighters and forestry experts to work with non-tribal people, both sides learning from and helping each other.

Reach the reporter at mleiby@wmicentral.com

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