Kearns and Sons RS Aesthetics

Wildland firefighters: the next generation

Fifty-five students from Anaconda and Trapper Creek Job Corps helped lay over a mile of fire line in the Sula District of the Bitterroot National Forest last week as part of their Guard School training to become certified as wildland firefighters. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

The Bitterroot National Forest has always cooperated with Trapper Creek Job Corps Center located south of Darby, but in 2014 an official fire program was initiated with Trapper Creek Job Corps called Guard School in which Job Corps students are trained and certified as wildland firefighters.

According to Bitterroot National Forest Fire Management Officer Justin Abbey, attendance at this year’s Guard School was double that of last year. This year 55 young men and women participated in the week-long training program, most of them from Trapper Creek Job Corps, but also 15 from the Anaconda Job Corps

“We’ve got some momentum going with this program and this is the best year yet,” said Abbey.

Abbey spoke with the press on site at the Guard School’s field day activities up the East Fork. The fifty-five Job Corps members were split into two crews who were going to lay down a little over a mile of fire line as part of the Sula District’s active fire plan.

Abbey said the young men and women would be learning team cohesion, how to swing a tool, how to dig a line and work uphill. He said it may seem simple to some Montana kids, but some of these kids are from the inner city.

The eight-hour day of line digging was preceded by three days of mostly class work. It began on Monday with a basic introduction to firefighting terminology and suppression techniques, a kind of “Firefighter 101 Course”, said Abbey.

The next day the students were introduced to “incident command,” the command structure used in fighting wildfires, and began their firefighter training. The students took an online course sponsored by FEMA and learned about disaster response. Some things they learned included how to run a pump, boost an engine, and lay hose. They also learned about weather and relative humidity. On Wednesday that training continued with some work in the field, burning slash at Trapper Creek.

Digging is hard work. Digging your way up a steep mountainside is even harder. Digging your way up a mountainside for over a mile can test your limits in many ways. On Friday, the last day of Guard School, the students reflected upon and discussed the “human factors” involved in laying a fire line.

“You get frustrated. You get tired. You get sore,” said Abbey. “We talk about it and the ways to deal with it.”

Abbey said the students were getting the same basic training that every firefighter gets and the aim was to get them certified as a Type 2 Firefighter and get them out on an incident. They don’t go in as a shock crew, he said, but they can do a lot, from setting up a fire camp to boosting crews to digging fireline. He said Job Corps crews are also used to spread grass seed, plant trees, and decommission roads.

He said the program offers the students an avenue to make money during the summer working on a wildland crew. It is money they can use when they transition out of the Job Corps.

“It could give them first and last month’s rent, it could help buy a car. It’s a chance to get a fresh start in life,” Abbey said.

Trapper Creek was originally a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp set up during the 1930s. During President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, many former CCC sites became Job Corps centers. As such, Trapper Creek opened as a Job Corps center in January 1966.

“We’re trying to bring back the old Civilian Conservation Corps motto of hard work and vigorous labor in the outdoors, while supporting the Forest Service mission,” said Abbey.

That’s just what young Brandon Hilbun from Florida was looking for when he came to Trapper Creek. Like a lot of young people that join the Job Corps, Hilbun had run into a little trouble in his home town.

“I tried to stay out of trouble,” he said, “but I didn’t make the choices I should have.” He made the right choice, though, when his mom told him about the Job Corps. He was born in Bozeman but was raised elsewhere before ending up in Florida. He chose Trapper Creek Job Corps because he thought he could “revisit some roots.”

“I chose to study natural resources because I love the woods and I wanted some hard work,” said Hilbun. He said he worked in a kitchen in Florida, but it was not fulfilling. “I wanted something to push my limits.”

Hilbun said there were a lot of things that you could take home from a stint in the Job Corps.

“I wanted to take home a more mature approach to life,” he said. “I wanted to be closer to becoming a man. I’m twenty-three years old and that’s just my goal, to be self-sustaining and take care of myself and the family I hope to have in the future.” He said wildland firefighting would make a good career, but it was seasonal and he would probably have to have some other employment.

You could say it was ditto, in many respects, for young Levi White from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He said he had it pretty tough and got a couple of jobs in Denver.

“But it was a dead end,” he said. “I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t making any progress. Since coming to Trapper Creek Job Corps I’ve found a reason to keep working, a reason to get up in the morning. I have a career that I can progress in and provide for myself and perhaps a family if I’m lucky.”

White said he was excited to be able to help himself and help others even more. He said by studying natural resources he could end up working in outdoor recreation, trails, and just helping the forest.

“I’d love to be a wildland firefighter,” said White. “I would love to protect our nation’s forests and resources as well as people, their homes and their livelihoods.”

The Job Corps is not just about fire training, of course, and some of the students getting certified in wildland firefighting have other career goals in mind. The Job Corps offers the students opportunities of certification and licensing of many kinds. Students can get certified to drive heavy machinery, for instance, or be trained in carpentry or welding.

Even though she is being certified in wildland firefighting, young Shalea Challia came to the Anaconda Job Corps to learn welding. Challia lives on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and wants to take back her knowledge of welding and firefighting to the reservation and help teach others. She also plans on using the program to go back to college, something the Job Corps is designed to facilitate as well. Her real aim is to become a school psychologist.

Abbey said that the Guard School was a win-win arrangement. He said the Job Corps students get free training and learn some valuable skills that can be used to earn a seasonal income no matter what their ultimate aims are concerning career development. The Forest Service and the public get some free labor as well as increased chances of getting good help when they need to fight a fire.

“This is the future generation of wildland firefighters,” said Abbey.

 

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