Geronimo Hotshots Battle Yosemite Rim Fire While Their Reservation Battles Poverty

The Geronimo Hotshots sound like a sports team — basketball or hockey perhaps — but much less glamorous, and much more dangerous. The Hotshots are an elite Native American firefighting crew from San Carlos, Arizona.

The Hotshots spend the majority of the wild-fire season out on the road saving lives and homes from often-deadly blazes. But back on the reservations where they live, their own communities struggle to survive every day, with many families living well below the poverty line. The unfairness is disconcerting.

Consider, that currently, the Hotshots are on the front lines of the Rim fire in Yosemite National park in California, which has spread over 281 square miles of forest and destroyed over 31 homes. While the 'shots brave the heat in Yosemite in the name of saving middle class homes and national parks — property and resources of a nation that has historically either systematically killed, exploited, or neglected them — their communities brave poverty: failing schools, alcoholism and addiction, unemployment, and lack of access to health care. 

Indeed, on the San Carlos Apache Indian reservation, like on most Indian reservations, jobs are scarce, and firefighting is one of only a few ways to make a living. In a good year a firefighter can make around $40,000, a far cry from surviving at or under the poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four. The job has another bonus as the firefighters see it; it's a "ticket off the isolated reservation." The Hotshots are sent to fight fires in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.

The Hotshots are a bright spot in reservation communities; wildfire fighters learn leadership skills, stay in shape, and are highly respected, but they are few and far between. The hotshots are one of only seven elite Native American firefighting crews across the country. For Hotshot Jose Alvarez Santi Jr., being a firefighter is a way of positively representing his Apache community to people outside. "We come from a people that were pushed around, shoved into reservations, and to me, I want our people to show that we can do a lot of things other than being pushed around and shoved around," he says. "It's a good feeling."

This feeling comes with achievement, an elusive thing on most reservations where deplorable conditions have been called "third world." It seems utterly unjust that one must essentially be willing to risk death daily as a prerequisite for one of the only high-achieving career paths attainable on reservations where 40% of the U.S. Native population resides.