JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is leveraging the invaluable local knowledge of Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes members to build a better prescribed burn program at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
The Air Force’s emerging partnership with the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes traces its roots to a friendship formed nearly two decades ago when Suida and Daw spent several years together fighting wildfires in the southwestern United States. When Daw joined the tribe’s new fire management staff two years ago, both men realized there was great potential in strengthening the link between the Air Force and the tribe.
“This is their turf,” said Nate Suida, Wildland Support Module lead with AFCEC’s Wildland Fire Branch. “They know this land and they know how it reacts to fire.”
Prescribed burning is an important part of the Department of the Air Force’s natural resource program. Carefully planned fires remove invasive and excessive vegetation on more than 150,000 acres of DAF property annually. The burns protect the Air Force mission at installations across the country by ensuring landscapes retain the qualities that make them suitable to train America’s Airmen.
AFCEC, which falls under the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, oversees the prescribed burn program as part of its management of environmental programs focused on fire, natural resource and cultural resource operations.
At Tinker AFB, prescribed burns are the heart of a plan to restore native grasses to the prairie area that surrounds the base.
“Prescribed fire is good fire,” said Phillip Daw, assistant fire management officer for the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes Fire Management team. “Native grasses are dependent on fire, it’s what makes them thrive.”
“This partnership just makes sense,” Suida said. “(The Cheyenne Arapaho team) brings a huge amount of local knowledge to prescribed burn operations and we offer them the hands-on experience and training they need.”
Responsible for fire management on tribal lands that cover most of western Oklahoma, Daw’s team is physically located less than one hour outside of Tinker AFB. That proximity to the base was vital when Suida activated the partnership for the first time in late May to accomplish a high-priority prescribed burn.
Members of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes Fire Management team and the Air Force Wildland Fire Branch, together with Tinker AFB Natural Resource and Fire Emergency personnel, were able to take advantage of a very limited time period that offered weather favorable for the important burn. The mission allowed the combined team to eliminate 25 acres of invasive thatch which prepared the land for native grass seeding.
“This needed to get done and we got it done,” Suida said. “We had a small window between Oklahoma burn bans, we mobilized the combined team in a day, got out to Tinker and got it done.”
The new partnership in support of Tinker’s prescribed burn program is one example of the Air Force’s robust tribal relations effort, an initiative spearheaded by AFCEC’s cultural resources team. Every year, more than 130 installations and multiple major commands consult with members of 328 federally recognized tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations as both pursue balanced and enduring relationships.
“The benefits of this partnership aren’t one sided,” Daw said. “We are helping the Air Force with our local knowledge and they are helping us with experience. We are doing good things out here; the community sees we are doing good things out here and that is important.”
“This brings us together to help both our communities,” Suida added. “I am excited to watch this partnership grow.”
Suida and the AFCEC team are now working to formalize the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes Fire Management partnership and secure dates for additional joint training and burn operations.