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BIA-volunteer firefighter dispute threatens Pine Ridge Reservation

Published: Oct. 20, 2020 at 4:57 PM MDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - Structure fires are not unusual on Pine Ridge. Firefighters watching buildings burn to the ground, however, is unusual.

A streak of fires hit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation between August and October, but regional fire departments did not respond to most calls for help during that timeframe. The burning question is: “why?”

The issue can be traced to special firefighting contracts: fire protection agreements, or FPAs.

These agreements are contracts between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and volunteer fire departments that allow the latter to both fight and receive reimbursement for responding to fires.

KOTA Territory News has obtained redacted cancelation letters written by the Bureau of Indian...
KOTA Territory News has obtained redacted cancelation letters written by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and sent to numerous departments on and near Pine Ridge that terminated their fire protection agreements in July. These agreements are contracts between the BIA and volunteer fire departments that allow the latter to both fight and receive reimbursement for responding to structure fires.(Dominik Dausch)

However, KEVN Black Hills FOX has obtained redacted documents written by the Bureau of Indian Affairs - cancelation letters sent to numerous departments on and near Pine Ridge that terminated the agreements in July.

Anonymous firefighters say the BIA delivered the annulments without any warning. According to the 2018/2019 FPAs, disbanding the agreements requires both 30 days written notice and cannot be canceled during any period of fire danger.

They claim the BIA only gave verbal warning of a possible termination of the FPAs, which would remain in force if the cancelations violated the terms of the agreement.

They also say the BIA had no grounds to kill the agreements during the summer/fall fire season.

For Jon Siedschlaw, deputy director for Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) Emergency Management, the dispute is taking its toll on the remaining responders: “we’ve been plagued with many structure fires on Pine Ridge Reservation, and it’s wearing out our resources."

On Saturday, August 8th, an arsonist put an old Catholic church at the Wounded Knee Massacre Site, as well as another actively-used church just down the road, to the torch.

Easy targets, Siedschlaw adds: "they typically don’t have a security system. There’s nobody living there.”

The BIA-affiliated Pine Ridge Fire Department was only 20 minutes away - close by, for a rural area - and first on-scene, but with their trucks on stand-by and their fire hoses. Their sole task was to douse the rare flame that meandered outside the smouldering place of worship.

Why? The Pine Ridge Fire Department cannot respond to structure fires per a lack of department-wide structural firefighter training and proper equipment.

Martin Volunteer Fire Department, a team actively trained to enter burning buildings, was the second to arrive - an hour after dispatchers called for help, which is fast considering the 50-minute drive between their fire hall and the old Catholic church.

However, by the time they arrived, the church was irreparably destroyed.

Siedschlaw, the church’s only other saving grace, was one of two firefighters to enter the second burning church, though he was initially unaware of another danger present: an unexploded 25 pound propane tank found inside an oven.

An unexploded 25-pound propane tank sits sideways in the oven of an actively-used church in...
An unexploded 25-pound propane tank sits sideways in the oven of an actively-used church in Wounded Knee that was a victim of arson on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Oglala Sioux Tribe Emergency Management Deputy Director Jon Siedschlaw was unaware of the potentially-explosive tank until he entered the building to attack the fire.(KOTA/KEVN)

"If it had gone the way the individual had intended it to be, it could have been a real bad thing,” the deputy director said.

Without an FPA in place, volunteer departments will not be reimbursed for responding to wildfires on trust land. It would also be costly to drive out to the often-distant fires on the reservation, considering gas, vehicle maintenance and water costs.

Volunteer crews dispatched by the BIA/OST can still battle structure fires without an agreement, but no recompense is offered for responding to those calls. Since fire departments cannot recoup the costs of responding to a normal wildfire, this leaves them hesitant to fight a structure fire without reimbursement, slowing and lowering the number of firefighters on-scene.

Coincidentally, the BIA did draft a 2020 agreement, with one significant difference: the reimbursement rates for fire crews were slashed by about 20 percent across the board. Instead of paying crews with superior or specialized training certifications higher rates, like Martin and Interior Volunteer Fire Departments, the latest agreement instead offers a universal pay rate for all departments.

KEVN reached out to multiple departments for comment on the new FPAs: some felt forced to sign the contracts, citing that the pandemic has already heavily impacted their funding. Others simply didn’t realize there was a pay decrease.

There have been a few holdouts - namely, Martin Volunteer Fire Department, which has not renegotiated with the Bureau.

As a result, they have not been dispatched to fires on the reservation, leaving the surrounding area at risk.

“We rely on [volunteer fire departments] in the area and they’re getting just as wore out as the rest of us,” Siedschlaw finished.

Copyright 2020 KOTA. All rights reserved.