Two conservation corps programs in Colorado offer veterans and youth a path into the Bureau of Land Management’s fire program by providing the necessary skills and experience. A number of vets in the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit, which includes the Craig Interagency Hotshot Crew or IHC, found their way to the wildland fire program through both the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Steamboat Springs and the Southwest Conservation Corps in Durango.
Since 2010, Conservation Corps programs like RMYC and SCC have initiated partnerships with the BLM in Colorado, California and Montana to establish Veterans Conservation Corps programs. The Veterans Fire Corps is part of Veterans Green Corps, a broader national initiative between the Department of Interior, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Conservation Corps programs.
Of the 64 BLM fire personnel at the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit, nine are military veterans.
Paul Black and Stephan Bell both came to the BLM fire program after working in the SCC Veteran Fire Corps. Black is returning to the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit for his second season as a wildland firefighter, and Bell is embarking on his first season as a crew member.
Black, a Colorado Springs native, was on active duty with the Army for three-and-a-half years and the Army Reserves for six years. He decided that he wanted to pursue working in the wildland fire program, and his experience with the SCC and VFC helped him along that path.
After his first season with the BLM as a firefighter, he returned to the VFC as a crew leader in order to share his experience and help other vets.
"A crew is as good as its crew leader. He keeps the crew going,” Black said. “The VFC has never had a crew leader with fire experience before.”
Bell, from Silver Springs, Maryland, was on active duty for three years with the Army. After his discharge, he wanted a change of scenery. He enrolled in a nursing program but said, “It wasn’t a good fit.” Bell learned of the SCC, which brought him west.
He then joined the VFC, where he met Paul Black and decided to apply for a firefighting position in the BLM.
“The fire program offers structure and consistency with variation. It was a good way to transition back to civilian life,” Bell said. “I enjoy the outdoors and it’s the real deal here.”
Ben Edens, from Chandler, Arizona, was in the Marines and the Army National Guard for five years. Seeing an advertisement in his local newspaper for the SCC, he applied for a job and worked in the VFC for three years.
"It was a great work environment and schedule with good people," Edens said. "It offered free fire certification and room and board, which led to my job today with the Craig IHC."
James Stevenson, who served four years in the Army with a deployment to Afghanistan, felt as if he didn’t fit in upon his return to Lake Tahoe, California. After holding several odd jobs, he visited with friends who worked on a Bureau of Indian Affairs wildland fire crew.
He was interested in the program, and they told him to apply online through the USAJobs.gov website. This is his first year with the Craig IHC.
Kalvin Kehoe owned a construction company in Oregon before serving four years in the Navy with a deployment to South America. His brother inspired him to pursue a career in wildland fire and Kalvin is now a first year recruit on the Craig IHC.
“Good leaders and a good crew make you want to be part of the organization,” Kehoe said.
The Craig IHC just returned from the Slide Fire in Arizona, their first wildland fire assignment of the season. They felt it was a good warm-up to the coming fire season and an eye-opener for the new recruits.
“It was a good mix of wildland fire elements, such as the urban interface and working with other crews,” said Sean Carey, Craig IHC superintendent.
Joey Shephard with the Northwest Colorado Fire Management Unit and Robert Ryeberg with the Craig IHC picked up the desire to join the wildland fire program through the RMYC. The RMYC and SCC both provide training and oversight for the hazardous fuel reduction crews they sponsor. Courses for all mitigation crews include basic chainsaw handling, basic firefighting, fire weather and fire behavior.
The men were unanimous in their sentiments regarding the wildland fire program: they wish to work in the fire service as long as possible; they enjoy the physical aspect of the job; and they like working outdoors in a changing environment.
They summed the program up in four words: service, uniform, team and adrenaline.
"It’s a win-win situation for everyone; it provides jobs for returning veterans and former conservation and youth corps members as well as dedicated employees for the BLM," said Acting Fire Management Officer Jim Michels.