It's hard work with low pay ... and they love it. They are several crews from the Fortuna California Conservation Corps, which recently returned home from assisting with firefighting efforts in California and Oregon. One crew, Fortuna 22, was active in fire suppression efforts on the Chips Fire in Plumas and Lassen National Forests, while other Fortuna CCC crews provided fire camp support on this and other fires.
The local crews were part of a statewide CCC firefighting effort that included 40 crews (530 corpsmembers) working on 14 different fires in California in August, and 15 crews (more than 200 corpsmembers) on the Chips Fire, and also the Ponderosa Fire, which burned in Tehama and Shasta Counties.
Fortuna 22, the Fortuna CCC firefighting crew spent 14 days in hot weather and working in steep terrain on the Chips Fire. One crew member said: "Every day I went out there and experienced all the pain, but when I got back to camp at the end of the day, I felt a sense of accomplishment; that I have achieved something." Fortuna crewmember Tim Moranda added: "I feel like I am creating a legacy (for firefighters who come after me), and Iike I am part of something that is larger than myself "
Another crew member summed it up for the entire team by saying, "We are constantly trying to become better, more professional, and more efficient," and he added, "We want to raise the bar."
CCC Crew Supervisor Lawrence Crofutt echoed that priority saying, "We want to build a reputation for professionalism and hard work."
The firefighting crew at the Fortuna CCC location was resurrected last year, after being absent since 1989. Crofutt said the fire program at the CCC is designed to create a recruitment pool for the U.S. Forest Service of trained and experienced firefighters. Prior to being deployed on fires outside the local area, the Fortuna CCC firefighting crew this year has worked with personnel on every ranger district of the Six Rivers National Forest.
"The structure of our crew with rotating Forest Service leadership," Crofutt said, "gives corpsmembers networking opportunities and creates a kind of walking interview for our folks." He said that translates into better job opportunities for the crew.
The Fortuna corpsmembers are able to use the training they receive from the CCC, network with fire professionals they meet, and use the hands on experience in firefighting to be well on their way to a career as a professional firefighter.
This fire season the Fortuna crew was also the first CCC crew to respond to a fire emergency out of state, when it was called to the Clay Springs Fire in Utah in July. "We were there for the fourth of July," one of the crew members said. "We were holding the 'hot line' to prevent the fire from moving outside the line," he added.
Not all CCC corpsmembers responding to fire-related emergencies are on fire crews. According to CCC Crew Supervisor John Griffith, "Many more are assigned to fire camp support crews and are often experiencing an emergency response effort up close and personal for the first time."
The work to construct and organize an immediately needed camp for hundreds of firefighters can be physically demanding and can include many long hours of effort. "Often corps members work 16 hour days for 14 days in a row in a hot and smoky camp doing a variety of strenuous and often tedious jobs," Griffith said. "This includes setting up tents, unloading trucks, directing traffic, doing general maintenance, and handing out lunches, safety equipment, hoses, chainsaws and other home-saving implements wielded by firefighters," he added.
He noted that the CCC corpsmembers are the ideal response agency for a variety of emergencies in California. "Who better to serve our communities during an emergency than youth?" Griffith asked. "The adaptability and stamina required during the long hours and continuous days are better served by a young person who is creating an identity as a responsible adult member of our society," he said.
When the crews are not fighting fires and providing fire camp support, they work on local projects including riparian habitat restoration and trail building. After talking about their firefighting experiences earlier this week, the Fortuna 22 crew was headed down to Weott to work on an erosion control and habitat establishment project in partnership with Caltrans.
Since the first Fortuna CCC crew deployed to Utah in late June, there have been at least two crews on fire dispatch (doing mostly camp support) and up to 5 crews at a time. As of now, there are still three crews from the Fortuna center on a fire camp.
Photo by Lawrence Crofutt
Fortuna CCC firefighter Zhenya Heller is pictured fighting the Rush Fire in Lassen County in July.