Students of Fire
Job Corps fire crews shape students’ futures and the landscape during the wildfire crisis
Deep into a canyon in Colorado, six Forest Service trucks from Nebraska sit in the shade of a row of pines as firefighters pile brush nearby. Spring hiring has just begun on Roosevelt National Forest and while staff prepare to onboard seasonal employees, a wildland fire crew from Nebraska’s Pine Ridge Job Corps is preparing one of the Forest’s units for a prescribed burn.
“We’ve gone on five rolls already this reason,” said Dayton Cleveland, supervisor for Nebraska’s Pine Ridge Job Corps’ Soldier Creek Wildland Fire Hand Crew. “This time of year, forests don’t have the employees, but we always have students ready to go. Before coming into this position, I didn’t realize how available Job Corps is for this.”
Job Corps is the largest nationwide residential career training program in the country. The program helps eligible young people complete their high school education, trains them for meaningful careers, and assists them with obtaining employment, all at no cost. As part of the program, the Forest Service operates 24 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers. These centers combine the traditional Job Corps program with an opportunity to gain the skills required to conserve the nation’s natural resources. Most of these centers have a wildland fire crew. At any one time, Job Corps has the capacity to dispatch more than 1,000 firefighter-qualified students to support wildland fires, hazardous fuels, and forest health programs nationwide, which has proved pivotal in confronting the nation’s recent wildfire crisis.
In January 2022, on the heels of some of the largest, most destructive fires in the nation’s history, the USDA Forest Service implemented a 10-year strategy to address the wildfire crisis. Job Corps became a critical part of that effort, helping fill the demand for wildland fire crews to complete proactive fire mitigation work in the most at-risk landscapes.
Cleveland and his 20-person wildland fire crew were dispatched to help in the largest of those landscapes – the Colorado Front Range. They’re the third Job Corps crew to come through the Roosevelt National Forest in 2023.
“Thanks to the Job Corps wildland fire crews that are helping out, we are accomplishing so much more this season than we would have on our own,” said Jason Sieg, deputy forest supervisor for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. “Bringing these crews out to local forests is also a great recruitment opportunity for us. It exposes people to national forests who may not have had that opportunity in their lives, and it opens their minds to a possible future Forest Service career.”
Cleveland joined Soldier Creek in January 2023 after a nearly two-decade career in fire and says it’s rewarding for him to get students off the center and into the forest where they can learn about fire and its career opportunities. But Cleveland also says Job Corps fire crews are an incredible use of staff and resources across the nation, especially for priority landscapes.
“We have students all the time, we can put the manpower to these priority landscapes. Job Corps is perfect for that. When it’s the spring or the fall and seasonal employees who do a lot of this work aren’t on, we still have students who are eager to come do this. Moving forward, other forests will see the work that’s getting done here and we’ll keep going out to stuff like this.”
The benefits of Job Corps wildland fire crews continuing to go on assignments aren’t just limited to landscapes. Cleveland says sometimes students get bit by the fire bug and continue a career in fire – some even coming full circle to fill instructors' shoes.
Luke Hill, lead firefighter for Boxelder Job Corps out of South Dakota, just finished leading their crew through burn prep on the same Colorado Front Range project as Soldier Creek, but in 2013 he was studying brick masonry.
“I got into Job Corps to find a trade and got the opportunity to join a crew there,” said Hill. “After getting to go on a few assignments, I left brick masonry for an advanced fire training school at Schenck Job Corps in North Carolina. I joined a hotshot crew, did that for seven years, and now I’m here at Boxelder giving back to the program. I never really thought of myself as a teacher but the more I’ve been doing this the more I think I can do this.”
And he’s not the only one.
“Luke is one of three permanent positions that we have at our center that are all job corps graduates,” said Adam Von Eye, assistant fire management officer at Boxelder. “One is a new firefighter and the other is the captain at Boxelder who graduated six years ago. Our students see that there’s a lot of experience in our permanent staff and that they went through our program and are now thriving in the Forest Service and federal workforce.”
Kevin Argueta, crew supervisor on the Black Hills National Forest and former Job Corps graduate, says that’s exactly what Job Corps is out to accomplish with these fire crews.
“Being able to support these types of projects is a great opportunity to provide a service to the local community and help us build partnerships, which introduces our Job Corps students to potential employers and opens up career opportunities for them.”
Career growth in fire has a promising outlook with growing attention around firefighter pay and the reassurance of continued work backed by the Forest Service’s new 10-year strategy. This strategy includes working with partners to dramatically increase fuels reduction and forest health treatments by up to four times the current treatment levels in the West, which affords more opportunities to more firefighters and increases incentives for Job Corps students getting their foot in the door.
“In the past, this work was just treated as an extracurricular in addition to students’ programs, but now we can pay them, which can help them continue pursuing a career in fire or at least leave Job Corps with some money in their pocket for when they graduate and leave the program,” said Cleveland.
“It’s amazing to see how far the Job Corp fire program has come over recent years,” said Cody Peel, fire, fuels and aviation staff officer for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. “They are a well-equipped, dependable, and professional program with great students and leaders. They have really turned up the knob on their fire training program in recent years, making sure the students have the right equipment and are ready for the jobs they are being asked to do. They can be proud of themselves and the work they are doing.”
Cleveland and his crew are on their 10th day of thinning and prepping lines, felling snags, brushing, limbing, and bucking up trees in preparation for this prescribed burn. Tomorrow, they’ll go home for a short break, send students to some of the engines on the Nebraska National Forest, and then roll back out in a few weeks for another cover assignment in California. They’re crossing their fingers that they get called back to the Colorado Front Range to help implement the burn they’re prepping.
“I’ve been in fire for a long time and you kind of run out of steam doing the same job for a while but, these guys and gals, they don’t take anything for granted. Everything they’re out here doing is something new to them and something they probably never thought they’d get the chance to do. The appreciation they have is great. When it’s October and you’re tired, these guys give you new life. They want to go. They want to get out and do this, and that’s crucial for these high-risk landscapes.”