GC VILLAGE — "Sei fono le pa’a mona vae."
For those who cannot read Samoan, the preceding sentence translates to "Look before you leap," one of the many pieces of advice briefed to National Park Service wildland firefighters.
The five firefighters from American Samoa pose for a photo along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Fire danger at Grand Canyon National Park escalated into extreme levels earlier this summer and as a result, assistance from around the country arrived to provide needed help. One such crew was a group of four firefighters from American Samoa, a tiny territory of the United States located about 2,600 miles south of Hawaii in the South Pacific.
Veni Sopoaga, Gasetoto "Mountain" Gasetoto, Auvasa "Bird" Simanu and Geoffrey Tagaloa shared in a variety of activities during their 30-day assignment at GCNP.
"This is a clear example of wildland fire support being international in scope," said Dan Oltrogge, GCNP fire management officer. "We’re grateful that firefighters from American Samoa would provide assistance to us at Grand Canyon."
Donna Nemeth, fire information officer, said that while in the park, the Samoans staffed an engine and responded to initial attack fires on both the North Rim and South Rim. The foursome also participated in training activities, assisted with search and rescue operations, helped prepare a burn unit for prescribed fire and even took part in the Fourth of July parade.
Willard Worley, the group’s engine boss, said they were "a very hard-working and united group, always respectful and eager to please."
American Samoa is made up of 77 square miles and includes five volcanic islands and two coral atolls. The territory’s population is about equal to that of Flagstaff.
As Oltrogge said, the Samoans represent an international approach to battling wildland fires.
"In the past, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have assisted with suppression efforts," Oltrogge said. "Now, we’re reaching across the world for help."
Morning safety briefings at the NPS fire station included a review of fire orders in English and Samoan. "La su’l tonu le mata o le niu" is another example of an order, which translates to "Go about an undertaking in the proper way."
The firefighters came to Grand Canyon as part of an exchange program that gives the American Samoans on-the-job experience and employment opportunities while the host agency benefits from their support.
The program evolved from the U.S. Forest Service’s "Cooperative Fire Assistance Program," which provides excess engines to fire departments in Hawaii and the South Pacific, and the National Park Service’s "Crew Mobilization Program," which provides fire training at NPS holdings in those areas.
Firefighters from American Samoa were first recruited last year when the continental United States had critical need for resources. Sixty firefighters have been trained since then and the program is expected to continue, Nemeth said. Besides the ongoing basic classes, higher-level classes will be offered in the future.
"While the benefit to the fire environment is obvious, the advantage to those who had the opportunity to interact with the crew from American Samoa is even greater," Nemeth said. "We appreciate their culture and strong work ethic and look forward to working with them in the future."
The Samoan crew headed back home early last week after 30 days at Grand Canyon.