Wisconsin has 72 Counties, 190 Cities, 1,246 Towns, and 414 Villages. It takes A LOT of people–more than 70,000 Wisconsinites–to do the nitty-gritty work that keeps our communities ticking. Curtis Wayka is one of them.
Curtis Wayka | Menominee, WI
When I signed up for these trainings sixteen years ago, I wasn’t really thinking of this being my career. But here I sit today as the Prescribed Fire/Fuels Specialist for the tribe. It’s rewarding to know that I am working for the community.
There are two sides to forest firefighting—fuels and suppression. Everyone knows about the suppression side, the ones who respond to a fire and suppress it. I work in the fuels program, which is less understood. Our job is to reduce the risk of wildfires. Our priority is to prepare for, mitigate, and reduce the risk, cost, and impact of wildfires on the Menominee Reservation.
Fuels management includes both planned prescribed burns and other treatments to change or reduce wildland fuels. The Menominee Fuels Management program has become increasingly important for reducing the risk of severe wildland fire to our communities and for maintaining or improving the health of our forest.
A big part of what we do on the fuels side is prescribed burning. That’s when fire managers intentionally ignite a fire. It’s a natural resources management strategy, and also a Menominee cultural practice. Before any prescribed fire is permitted, we must have a strategic Fire Management Plan in place, as well as a specific burn plan. When prescribed fire is not the best option, our crew also implements mechanical treatments, such as thinning, mowing, and removing excessive dead vegetation, to reduce hazardous fuels and restore ecosystem health.
We use prescribed fire, mechanical treatments, and chemical treatments (or combinations of these treatment types) to protect neighboring communities from destructive wildfires by reducing the fuels that could otherwise contribute to destructive wildfires.
We start prepping for fire season in February, so we are ready for the snowmelt. Once the melt happens, we go into the grassy open areas and do controlled burns to get rid of the dead cured grass from the winter. Curing and the weather are the most important factors influencing fire behavior in grasslands here at Menominee. Curing affects the behavior of a fire because it gradually increases the amount of dead material in the grassland which has less fuel moisture content. So, when new green stuff comes up it doesn’t burn because there is too much moisture in it. This just makes it a safer area and less to worry about on the fire suppression side.
Also, there is a lot of logging around here. The slash (treetops and woody material left behind after a timber harvest) can create a wildfire hazard. We mulch up the logging and clean it up, so our fire suppression team can get in and attack a fire with lower intensity, instead of dealing with ten-foot to fifteen-foot flames. Our lake area is at risk because it has dry sandy soils. About five years ago we had a bigger fire; it burned 132 acres in the lake area. If we get the right conditions, the right relative humidity level, the right winds, we could have a really big problem here with the amount of growth in the lake area.
Once we get to the end of spring we don’t have as much of a fire risk. So, we are available to go on Western assignments to help out other tribes and agencies. Our full-time staff here at Menominee is also a national resource that can be called to help around the country. Last year, we went to California multiple times. We’ve had guys in Colorado, New Mexico, and Missouri. We also had a guy down in Florida this past winter for some hands-on prescribed fire training. We keep enough staff home for protection here, but the rest of us are able to go out West if available and gain experience on the bigger fires.
We have worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), FEMA, and other federal land agencies during other natural disasters. It is amazing to be part of a team with people from so many places. You take guys from the Menominee Nation, guys from the national forest service, and four guys from the BIA or somewhere else and you put them all together in a twenty-person crew to serve the public in a common mission. It’s amazing to see how fast the team can come together. It doesn’t matter what agency you work from or where you are from; everybody has the same goals. A fire doesn’t care about jurisdiction or boundaries when it is burning.
I am proud of the service our firefighting team provides for our community, and proud to represent the Menominee Nation when battling natural disasters in other parts of the country.
This story was produced by Scott Schultz and is part of our Wisconsin municipal workers’ series. Want to learn more about local government? Check out the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Citizen’s Guide to Wisconsin’s Cities and Villages.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.