Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Fire Crew trains young firefighters
Local nonprofit expands fire mitigation role
The active northern Colorado wildfires of 2020 turned out to be an important part of the training season for the young adult fire crew at nonprofit Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.
After almost six months of strenuous and challenging work, including camping out at least five nights per week and working 21 days straight on the Middle Fork Fire, eight of the 10 members of last year’s fire crew have already found work in professional firefighting positions across the country.
The crew, ages 18 to 25, worked for RMYC Conservation Corps from late May to mid-October and are now starting professional jobs from Meeker to Minnesota, from Idaho to Oregon, said Ryan Banks, RMYC program director in Steamboat Springs.
Youth Corps programming is helping to meet the growing need for wildland firefighters, providing an important occupational training opportunity and helping people get their foot in the door of a profession that is not that easy to break into, said Banks, who led the fire crew himself in 2013.
The RMYC fire crew, part of the Conservation Corps’ 13 crews of young adult workers, serves as a first step for anyone looking to start a career as a wildland firefighter or in other public land management positions. Since the program is also part of AmeriCorps, crew members who complete the summer earn a $3,000 to $4,000 educational stipend on top of wages to be used to pay back student loans or pursue further education.
Fire crew 2020 member Santiago Escobar, 22, will start work in early May with the local Storm Peak Wildland Fire Module with the U.S. Forest Service. Escobar, who holds dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship, currently is spending time with family in Mexico City and hiking five to six days per week with a 55-pound weighted vest to stay in shape for fire season.
Escobar worked two previous summers for the Conservation Corps’ Trail Crew. He said the trails, chainsaw and fire prevention and mitigation work was so tiring that sleeping nightly in a tent became easy. His tent was home on his days off too last year, thus he slept in a tent every night for almost six months straight.
Though he previously considered earning a college degree in biology, working for RMYC swayed Escobar to the wildland firefighter path.
“Any excuse to live in the beautiful outdoors of Colorado and get paid for it is a blessing,” Escobar said of his time with RMYC.
Mackenzie Goltz, 23, was one of five women on the fire crew last year. After finishing her biology degree from the College of Wooster in Ohio, she sought out an adventurous outdoor summer experience.
“It was the first time I spent time with more than two other people who love the outdoors like I do,” Goltz said.
She said the work was mentally and physically challenging, but she valued the opportunities to speak with many land management professionals who helped to focus what she wanted to do for a living. She called the work refreshing and peaceful but also sometimes cold camping on the job.
“It was really freeing for me after coming out of college and not being sure quite what I wanted to do,” said Goltz, who enjoyed working with the crew of diverse individuals.
Goltz will soon start a professional position working on a fire engine crew in Washington for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Another of the female fire crew 2020 members, Rose Salerno, made the competitive cut to work for the Snake River Interagency Hot Shot Crew in Idaho, Banks noted.
Banks said RMYC Conservation Corps assignments this year for fire response and mitigation work represent a tenfold increase compared to previous years, and fire prevention work will double this summer.
“We are anticipating a lot more fuels prevention work for the foreseeable future,” Banks said.
Members of the young adult fire crew earn certifications in chainsaw safety and wildland firefighting, which is commonly known as a “red card.” Crew members also must pass a stamina test, also known as a pack test, which is a 3-mile walk with a 45-pound backpack completed within 45 minutes.
The fire crew is part of 130 employees at the Conservation Corps, which started in 2000. RMYC offers a diverse set of skills training opportunities, including trail work, environmental restoration, historic preservation, wildlife habitat management and invasive species management. The nonprofit organization provides employment, training and outdoor hands-on experience for young adults as well as similar programs for ages 11 to 18.
In addition, RMYC and the U.S. Forest Service are partnering this summer to sponsor a three-person veteran fire crew for post-9/11 military veterans to create a path to employment.
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A fire being dubbed “Skull Creek” is active north of U.S Highway 40 about 70 miles west of Craig along the highway, or 60 miles west-southwest as the crow flies.