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Fired Up for a Firefighting Career

Students learn the basics, then join the Mojave Greens, a working crew that can be a steppingstone to a career battling blazes.

August 18, 2003|Hanah Cho | Times Staff Writer

Nathan Leatherman has fire in his blood.

In the third grade, Leatherman first heard his grandfather tell of his adventures as a firefighter -- riding a screaming fire engine, battling a wall of flames consuming the forest, and saving lives.

So a year out of high school, in 2002, Leatherman signed up for a fire technology course at Victor Valley Community College in Victorville and quickly became an on-call U.S. Forest Service firefighter with the Mojave Greens crew in the San Bernardino National Forest.

As the parched San Bernardino Mountains face one of the gravest fire dangers in years, the Forest Service is again turning to this crew of mostly fresh-faced community college students to help hold the line on major wildfires -- and handle some of the grunt work it takes to prevent a catastrophic blaze.

"It's a fun job," said the 20-year-old Yucca Valley resident, who works odd jobs during the winter while looking for full-time work as a firefighter. "Who else will pay you to camp and work out?"

Leatherman isn't alone. Hundreds of students have passed through the Mojave Greens crew on their way to a firefighting career with the Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other local, state and federal firefighting agencies.

The Mojave Greens, named after a rattlesnake indigenous to the desert, have gone on four fire calls this season, including a wildfire near Lake Isabella in Kern County.

"They're considered an all-risk crew," said Terry Murphy, a 28-year veteran recently retired from the Forest Service who teaches the course at Victor Valley Community College. "The Mojave Greens have been in all of the Western states fighting fire."

Of the 45 crew members working this fire season, most are rookies who just finished their training at Victor Valley. Their average age is 22.

Some stay with the Mojave Greens for years; others, after spending a summer inhaling smoke, decide to move on.

The college program is one of the few training courses the U.S. Forest Service in Southern California turns to for temporary help during the fire season, and it has provided an abundant pool of recruits for the Forest Service's elite "hot shot" firefighting crews and other forestry jobs, said Battalion Chief Betty Ashe, who oversees the Mojave Greens program. "All we could do is open the door for them. They have to take the step to enter," she said.

The U.S. Forest Service counts on similar programs in Los Angeles County to help protect the Angeles National Forest. Antelope Valley College in Lancaster and Los Angeles Valley College in Valley Glen each offer wildfire training that prepares students for entry-level jobs in wild-land firefighting through a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training. Doing well helps them land a job with the Forest Service.

The Victor Valley program began in 1978 when the late Charles Peterson, a former professor and vice president of Victor Valley Community College, put together a volunteer squad.

It later evolved into a partnership between the Victorville college and the San Bernardino National Forest's Mountain Top ranger district, which encompasses Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.

To become a member of the Mojave Greens, students must enroll in a 44-hour Basic Wildland Firefighting course usually offered twice in the spring semester. Students also must pass a physical examination and a stamina test that requires completing a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack in less than 45 minutes. Once accepted, they also must complete 80 more hours of training. The job pays $11.68 an hour and offers no benefits, but for those hoping for a full-time job with the Forest Service, the experience is invaluable.

The crew is on call year-round but is busiest during summer and fall. The team acts as a support unit, either to cover for the regular "hot shot" firefighters who are on a call or to work on projects throughout the San Bernardino National Forest.

At 18, Casey Guise, is one of the youngest on the crew.

Guise grew up in a firefighting family.

He took the Victor Valley course last spring when he was 17 and a junior at Big Bear High School.

"I wanted to get my feet wet," said Guise, who is looking for any firefighting job. "There is nothing better than the adrenaline rush" of fighting a fire.

The desire to keep fighting fires brings Joseph Torres back to the crew year after year. The 36-year-old Hesperia resident started with the Mojave Greens in 1984 and spent four years as a firefighter with the National Park Service.

"I come back for the love of the outdoors and [because] it's a challenge," Torres said.

Although Torres had initially sought to make firefighting his career, he realized that the work left no time for family. So the married father of a 3-month-old girl works for San Bernardino County as a maintenance code enforcement officer most of the year and takes time off in the summer to work as a crew supervisor for the Mojave Greens.

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