Friday, 8 April 2016

Of Eskimos and Ants

     How do Eskimo firefighters entertain themselves during down time? Eskimo firefighters? You must be kidding! How many fires do you get in the land of snow? Well, the igloos I saw in Greenland were made of timber, (igloo simply means "house", of whatever material) but I agree there were not enough to justify a regular fire brigade. However, it was a different matter in Idaho in 1967. But there are no Eskimos in Idaho, I hear you exclaim. Well, let me explain.
     The summer of 1967 was a bad year for forest fires in the northwest United States, and nowhere was it worse than the area around Sundance Mountain, Idaho. On 1st September that year, a strong wind fanned a small lightning-lit fire into a raging inferno which ultimately embraced 55,910 acres, most of it within the first 12 hours. The Bureau of Land Management called out an army of 2,000 firefighters: professional Indian fighters from Arizona and New Mexico, student volunteers, striking miners from Montana, recruits from the skid rows of Seattle and Spokane - and Eskimos from Alaska. A journalist at the time provided this report:
     Near Hellroaring Creek five 24-man crews of short, dark fire fighters labored to close that gap - sawing, chopping, diggging, shoveling. They strongly resembled American Indians, but they were not. They were Eskimos from Chevak, a tiny riverside fishing village near the Bering Sea.
     A dozen such crews had flown from Alaska to help fight the fires. For most of the Eskimos it was their first trip "outside", their first look at horses and cows.
     Frank Ulroan, the Chevak crew leader, spoke good English.
     "The first question everyone asks us," he said, "is 'How do you like it here in the Lower Forty-Eight?' We tell them, 'It's too hot.'"
     "You know what really fascinates these men?" asked Brian Weatherford, their non-Eskimo liaison officer. "Ants. They never saw any in Alaska, and every free moment they have they go out in the fields and watch ants at work."
Reference: Stuart E. Jones and Jay Johnston: "Forest Fire: The Devil's Picnic", National Geographic, July 1968, pp 100 - 127, at 117.

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