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'It's not only our history, but it's American history': How the Yocha Dehe Fire Department is fighting fires and preserving history

Guided by the tribal council and its fire commission, they have built a state-of-the-art fire station that protects tribal history.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A one-of-a-kind fire department is located right in our own backyard. 

The Yocha Dehe Fire Department serves part of Yolo County. They are fighting fires, while also preserving history. 

“We're the only tribally owned accredited department in the country," said James Kinter, Yocha Dehe Tribal Council secretary. 

Being established in 2004 by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the department has a handful of firefighters and support staff.

As a nation, Kinter says there are about 100 people.

"So I know it's small but pre-contact, early 1700s, it was about 50,000," said Kinter. "Unfortunately, through the gold rush, and through those invasions, we got whittled down quite a bit and now we're on our way back."

On top of protection and emergency services, the team is equipped to carry out specialty rescues - such as swift water and vehicle extrication. And beyond that- a cultural resource officer guides people through native landmarks and the handling of native artifacts.  

"It's not only our history, but it's American history and so we want to protect that for future generations," said Kinter. "So just north of here we have a piece of land, up there it's one of our last cemeteries it's a very bad fire area... we're able to avoid those and to go out there and walk with the folks who are actually doing the dozer lines, and be able to avoid those areas."

Guided by the tribal council and its fire commission, they have built a state-of-the-art fire station that protects tribal history. But the department serves far beyond the sovereign nation, covering the Capay Valley of Yolo County.

The fire department was the first paramedic-level department serving Yolo County. Many of their medical calls come from Cache Creek Casino, but 40% of their calls are off tribal grounds.

“We're not here by ourselves, we have a lot of neighbors around us, and we want to make sure that they're taken care of as well,” said Kinter. 

The commitment to sharing resources is symbolized by the acorn.

"Doyuti T’uhkama, the sharing of an acorn, that is not just theirs, they want to make sure that they are sharing with the region to make the entire region safer," said Fire Chief Rebecca Ramirez.

Ramirez stepped into her role in January 2020. With nearly 30 years in the fire force breaking glass ceilings along the way.

As the first woman firefighter in West Sacramento, Ramirez rose through the ranks to deputy chief and later became the first woman fire chief in Woodland. She says as a young woman — she never saw women in this line of work. 

“It didn't seem accessible to me and I kind of pushed my way into it, but I found that it really was accessible," said Ramirez. "It's just something I didn't know about it. So making it really an awareness level in communities that firefighting is for everybody.”

Even now, only 10% of the country’s fire force are women. Through her own experiences, Ramirez knows there are people they serve who don’t see themselves in firefighting.

"What I noticed is we don't have any tribal firefighters here," she said.

Ramirez, with the tribal council and fire commission, is paving a path to firefighting for the people they serve.

"How do we home-grow our own firefighters here and one of the ways to do that is through a youth academy," said Ramirez.

The first Yocha Dehe Fire Youth Academy launched in 2021. 

"It's real, real work," Ramirez said. "We haven't done everything from scrubbing toilets to doing training burns to auto extrication. We teach them real job skills."

Continuing diversity in fire fighting she says will only strengthen the fire force and the communities they serve.


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