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Fire Unit Helps Gang Members Restart Lives : Forest Service: Fighting wilderness blazes keeps young adults off the streets. But the work is only seasonal.


To Danny Cortez, the East Los Angeles Aztecs firefighting crew has been a lifesaver in more ways than one.

The crew, a new on-call unit working for the U.S. Forest Service, spent up to three weeks away from home at a time fighting fires during the past several months. Being away meant helping save forests, homes and the lives of strangers, but it also kept crew members off the violent streets most of them know too well.

"I grew up in the neighborhood. I had problems with gangs all my life," said Cortez, 21, who was charged with murder twice but was not convicted. "If every neighborhood had a (firefighting) crew, there'd be no violence in L.A."

The Aztecs, whose members were trained last spring in time for the region's busiest fire season, is the second Forest Service firefighting crew in Los Angeles County made up primarily of former gang members or residents trying to break away from street life. The South-Central Panthers, also an on-call unit, were trained in mid-1993.

The Aztecs have about 25 active members 18 or older, down from more than 40 potential members recruited for the initial training. The crew members are paid about $9 an hour, with some earning more if they take on leadership roles.

The work involves leaving East Los Angeles at a moment's notice to help fight fires throughout California or places such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. The grueling hours include long hikes with heavy backpacks, helicopter rides, chopping down trees and operating firefighting equipment. The trade-off is a paying job that generates self-esteem and takes members to places as different from East Los Angeles as most of them could imagine.

"You could really think out there," Cortez said. "There's a lot of our crew that had never even been out of L.A."

Cortez and others said the major drawback has been that the work is seasonal so it does not answer their needs year-round. Several work part-time or odd jobs; others inevitably fill some of the down time with illegal activities such as dealing drugs, they said.

Alfred Mendoza, 31, who works part time as a forklift operator at a produce warehouse, is among those who hope to capture a full-time job with the Forest Service.

"This job keeps us busy," Mendoza said. "You ain't got to look over your back. You're just working, working, working. A lot of people compliment you. It gives you self-esteem."

Andrew Barreras, 35, said the past two years have been tough because he was laid off from Northrop Corp. after working there 10 years. A full-time job would help him provide for his wife and four children, even though it would be difficult to be away from them, he said.

"It takes a lot of dedication," he said. "This was my first time away from them. Everybody is really sad because you're gone. But when you get back, it's fun."

Forest Service officials said the Aztecs received outstanding performance ratings at every job site this year. The crew was hard-working and performed as well as any of the other 40-odd on-call fire suppression units in the state, officials said.

"I think we would have been surprised if there were a lot of problems," said Gregory S. Greenhoe, deputy fire management officer for the Forest Service at Angeles National Forest. "If we had an earthquake or a fire tomorrow, we'd call the Aztecs."

Greenhoe and Fire Capt. Mark Glos said the Forest Service hopes to train enough local residents to create at least two crews of Aztecs. Other goals include helping the crews develop their own internal leadership and perhaps hiring a few members full time, they said.

A community group called Padrinos helped recruit the existing crew members and will continue to co-sponsor the program, said Mike Jaramillo, a member of the group. Many crew members are dropouts who must earn at least a high school equivalency diploma to be eligible for full-time work with the Forest Service, he said.

"My idea is to get them into a program like this and get them into decision-making positions," said Jaramillo, 58, a former gang member who admits having had his own run-ins with law enforcement authorities. "They relate to me. It's a good relationship."

Jaramillo, employment director at the Chicana Service Action Center in Downtown Los Angeles, said a couple of immediate goals include trying to keep crew members working and perhaps involving at least a few women in the program.

"You can't give up. This might be the answer," he said.

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