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Course Puts Fire in Their Bellies

Students just drifting through high school learn to fight blazes in national forests. They return motivated and goal-oriented.

May 21, 2006|Stephen Clark | Times Staff Writer

For five weeks, nearly 100 youngsters from 14 high schools cut fire lines with shovels and axes, pulled hose lines up a hill and were pushed to their physical limits with push-ups, stomach crunches and hikes around the San Gabriel Mountains.

On Saturday, they looked back proudly at what they had done.

At their graduation from the Wildland Fire Academy, they watched a slide show of their training set to music. Decked out in yellow flame-resistant shirts, hardhats and goggles, they relived the drills, the tests, the firefighting demonstrations and the camaraderie.

"It's been a great experience," said Yovan Sierra, a 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High School, who wants to become a firefighter.

To graduate, students were required to complete 32 hours of training, which gives them two units of college credit. Of the 103 students who started the program, 83 graduated. They are now eligible to work part time for the U.S. Forest Service, making $12 an hour if they are enrolled in college.

John Burke, the program director and an accounting instructor at Valley College, estimates that 20 to 30 seniors will be offered part-time employment. Full-time professionals, he said, make $45,000 to $60,000 a year.

The Forest Service, created in 1905, is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Forestry professionals manage public lands in national forests and grasslands.

Burke says the program, which is in its third year, targets students drifting through high school with average grades. They are the ones who don't get enough attention because teachers or counselors are focused on high-achieving or at-risk students. "This is another strategy to close the achievement gap," he said.

Counselors say the program works: Students return more motivated and goal-oriented. "It makes them a little more interested in the education process," said Bree Pasmyn, a counselor at Taft High School.

The program, which costs about $70,000, is funded by Valley and Pierce colleges through federal grants. It takes place at the Forest Service's Biedebach Regional Training Center in San Fernando and is free to students selected for the training.

Many students praised the course for its physical challenges and said it exposed them to a profession they knew little about.

"I didn't think it was this hard of a job," Sasha Fernandez, 16, said of firefighting. Although she enjoyed the program, she said, the training convinced her that she would rather be a police officer.

Students wished the program lasted longer than five weeks. "You only get a taste of it," said Jessica Mena, 16. "You want more."

Most of the participating high schools are in the San Fernando Valley. Two, however, Roosevelt High and Garfield High, are in more urbanized East L.A.

Sam Alba, a special education teacher at Roosevelt High, said the course gives students a new perspective and a sense of belonging that keeps them from joining gangs. "Instead of connecting with kids going the wrong way," he said, "they're connecting with students going the right way."

The students are learning more than just how to put out a forest fire, Alba said. They are learning teamwork, responsibility and dedication.

"It makes a huge difference," Alba said. "These kids are in the middle of war-torn neighborhoods."

Chris Cortes, a 17-year-old senior at Garfield High School, said the hardest part for him was adjusting to a new environment.

"I don't see this in East Los Angeles," he said. "Hiking is new to me."

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