Veterans Turn Firefighters in California Program, Part of 21st Century Conservation Service Corps

The California Conservation Corps enrolls veterans to assist with firefighting efforts as an official program of 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.

At a California Conservation Corps center in the Sierra foothills, 50 military veterans were put through their paces this week, mastering a 40-hour wildland fire training led by members of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

After completing the course, the veterans became part of the nationwide Veterans Green Corps, that also includes veterans in the Student Conservation Association and the Southwest Conservation Corps. Many Corps programs have also developed Veterans Conservation Corps programs with other partners including Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (Colorado), Montana Conservation Corps, Maine Conservation Corps, Nevada Conservation Corps, Washington Conservation Corps, Utah Conservation Corps and Western Colorado Conservation Corps. These programs are all part of the new 21st Century Conservation Service Corps.

For CCC Corpsmembers, the world-class fire training involved Forest Service instructors from around the country and included fireline construction, tool use, hose lay, team-building and more. At its conclusion, many of the veterans were offered firefighting jobs by the USFS and the BLM. Those jobs could lead to entry into a Forest Service apprenticeship program.

Dan Cottrell, the U.S. Forest Service’s incident commander for the veterans training, called it “a great example of collaboration between the CCC and the USFS, to hire, train and place veterans into careers in fire management.”

In the CCC, the veterans — up to age 29 — will be split up onto four crews throughout the state. They’ll work on USFS lands in the Auburn, Tahoe, San Bernardino and San Diego areas, honing their skills in fuel reduction work.

“We’re developing the next generation of firefighters,” says the Juan Mercado, the CCC’s incident commander. “The veterans are getting job skills that will help them as future employees — it’s a great stepping-stone.”

The CCC/USFS program, now in its third year, offers recently returned veterans a chance to transition to civilian employment in a field that captures some of the intensity and structure of their military experience.

Bradley Fry, 27, was a sergeant and paratrooper in the Army for more than five years, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I like how hard it is,” he says. “I like to push myself beyond what I’m capable of, so I thought this would be an awesome career field. And I really like the camaraderie, working as a team and a crew.”

Another vet, Christopher Varela, 23, previously served in the Army National Guard.

“Firefighting is a really noble profession, much like the military, very hard — I enjoy the physicality of it,” he says. “It’s something I’d like to do, to help out, something that only a few can really do.”

As California enters the 2014 fire season in the third year of a drought, the newly minted firefighters are sure to play an important role while converting their military skills into a vital new occupation.

-Submitted by the California Conservation Corps

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