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A new documentary tells the story of an all-female Apache firefighting crew

With the sound of women's voices singing in the background, the camera pans across a scene of beautiful mountains. A man speaks softly: "Very sacred to us are these mountains, the rivers, the trees, the wind, the clouds. We are one with the land."

This is a striking moment in Apache 8, a new documentary produced by Tucsonans Sande Zeig and Vicky Westover. Zeig directed the film and works as a writer and film distributor. Westover is the director of the Hanson Film Institute at the UA.

The man speaking is Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountains Apache Tribe. A distinguished-looking man with white hair, he speaks about a crew of Apache firefighters. "They can climb the highest mountain, carry the heaviest burden on their back and still put out the fire. We are so proud of them."

The firefighters he praises are Apache 8, an all-women wildland firefighter crew that began in 1974. The film tells their impressive story.

Zeig got the idea for the film while traveling through the Phoenix airport. "I was walking to the shuttle, and I passed this group of women of all ages—20s to 50s—all wearing yellow shirts. There was a certain vibration around them."

Zeig asked who they were. One of the women responded, "We are firefighters from Fort Apache."

Feeling there was something special about them, Zeig responded: "I want to make a movie about you."

She connected with Cheryl Bones, an Apache 8 crew chief who began fighting fires in 1974. She is now in her 50s and still working. Bones invited Zeig to the reservation.

A few days later, Zeig walked up a mountain with the crew at 7 a.m. She filmed the women easily wielding chainsaws, cutting down trees and thinning out the area.

Zeig later showed Lupe the clip. Afterward, he asked, "Who gave you permission to film this?" Zeig had not received any; Lupe joked that Zeig would have to serve 10 years in prison.

She eventually gave a presentation to the tribal council, which gave her permission to continue. Zeig says they felt the film would benefit the tribe. She feels honored by their acceptance, she says, since few filmmakers get council approval.

Between 1974 and 2005, when the Apache 8 became co-ed, the crew developed a reputation for excellence. They worked side by side with male crews on the reservation and around the country—often outworking the men.

Former Apache 8 member Katy Aday recalls a time when they were called to fight a fire in the Phoenix area. "When we got in, there were so many people at the fire camp. A man asked if we were Apache 8. We said, 'Yes we are.' He said, 'Come with me.' He marched us up the fire line. People moved out of our way, saying, 'That's Apache 8.' He put us in the front of the fire line. ... We were known by reputation."

This particular job was two weeks long. Aday recalls that the only "downtime" came while doing mop-up duty—which meant carrying 50- to 75-pound water packs, spraying the area, making sure the dirt was cold and so forth. However, this "downtime" allowed crew members 15- to 20-minute breaks to eat and sleep. Aday laughs and says that she learned to "sleep anywhere, anytime."

The film explores the lives of Aday and three other Apache 8 members. Mixing archival footage and present-day interviews, there is a nice blend of past and present. Viewers get a taste of life on the reservation, including a sunrise dance—the initiation ritual for girls at puberty. It's easy to see the strong bonds that Apaches have with the land and each other.

The film includes scenic views of the White Mountains, and music by composer Wendy Blackstone and Native American artists. The film nicely blends scenery, sound and story.

Zeig originally thought she was going to focus only on the firefighting side of the women. "But I was moved by the stories of these four people," she says. "That became the heart of the film."

Zeig wanted others to be inspired by the Apache 8 crew—just as she has been.

More by Irene Messina

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