On the front lines
Wildland firefighters training program pulls diverse youth into service
Box Springs, Georgia — Austin Griffin “never had a father figure” and his mom has been in and out of jail most of his life. Stephen McGuin’s little brother was shot and killed last year in Atlanta.
Fire might yet be the young men’s salvation.
Griffin and McGuin are training to become wildland firefighters, an odd career choice given their at-times troubled backgrounds. Yet they’re perfect fits for a still-new training program crafted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to put a diverse and economically disadvantaged cadre of young men and women on the front firefighting lines.
Everybody seems to benefit. The Conservancy gets help propagating longleaf pine forests while introducing a hard-to-reach demographic to careers in nature. Firefighting groups like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) get a pipeline of potential recruits. And young adults like Griffin and McGuin get training, job leads and, possibly, one-way tickets out of dead-end situations.
“It’s really hard work. You’ve got to push yourself to do it. There’ll be 12, 16 hour days in the heat and then you’ve got to do it again the next day,” said McGuin, 21, leaning on his hoe alongside a two-lane blacktop in west-central Georgia. “But it’s a great job for people who like being outside and helping Mother Nature.”
Conservation of the future
Four years ago, TNC and the U.S. Department of Labor began recruiting low-income kids, aged 16-24, for jobs fighting wildfires across the South. The agency’s Job Corps typically trains masons, carpenters and electricians.
With the recent rise in “green jobs,” though, the Job Corps also began offering free courses on renewable energy, pollution prevention, energy efficiency and firefighting. The Service, along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Student Conservation Association, joined the program this year.
Once students pass basic firefighting classes and a physical, including completion of a 3-mile hike with a 45-pound pack within 45 minutes, they receive the coveted “red card.” And they’re ready to fight wildfires or prep land so fires, if they do break out, can be more readily contained.
Roughly 60 Job Corps students have been trained to fight fires.
“We’re trying to target young people from underserved groups that typically don’t have access to an opportunity like this,” said Troy Ettel, who runs TNC’s longleaf pine program from Atlanta. “If we don’t have a conservation movement that reflects the diversity, age, race and gender of our country then we won’t have people supportive of conservation in the future.”
The first recruits came from the Job Corps in Jacksonville, Florida. They cut fire lines and burned the thick, fire-friendly understory of plants and shrubs in the Osceola National Forest and, across the border, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
The Conservancy has raised $1 million for the program since 2015, about half from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which allowed the program to expand across the longleaf pine’s Southeastern range. Crews this year worked in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina.
“We’re watching the TNC program very closely because of its diversity,” said Jon Wallace, the Service’s deputy fire management coordinator in the Southeast. “Let’s face it, most wildland firefighters are white males. We’re trying to figure out how to hire folks who reflect the communities we serve. We hope to use the TNC program as a recruiting tool. It’s a great program.”
He got the call
McGuin — nicknamed Smokey Bear “because of my beard” — was born in Louisiana and moved to Atlanta as a lad. He played fullback and linebacker for the Norcross Blue Devils and, like so many kids, kicked around after high school trying to figure out what’s next. College and the military held little appeal. So he installed water meters. He trained as a carpenter. But he wanted something more.
“I got tired of going to the same parties and the same job every week,” he said.
The Conservancy’s Ettel discovered McGuin at the Job Corps in Brunswick, Georgia. McGuin was intrigued. He’d hunted and fished back in Louisiana and enjoyed the outdoors. Why not give firefighting a try? Ettel put him on a crew working in Osceola last year.
“When I first went out I said, ‘Hell, I’m in the woods. I got no Facetime. I need fast food. I need McDonald’s,’” McGuin recalled, chuckling. “I just had to get out of my comfort zone and do it. Here, you never know what the outcome will be.”
And then he got the phone call.
“I lost my little brother, J’Kobe,” McGuin said. “He got killed in Atlanta. He was shot. Wrong place, wrong time.”
McGuin went home.
“Stephen always stood out because he had some personal challenges he had to deal with, but he always comes back and sticks with it,” Ettel said. “He’s shown tremendous motivation. And he quickly became a crew member his peers looked up to.”
Finish what you start
The fire crew didn’t receive a burn permit one recent, windless summer morning, but McGuin, Griffin and another firefighter had other work to do. Steve Carpenter, a TNC crew manager, wanted his men to extend a fire line to Ga. 267.
“And you have 10 minutes to do it,” he said.
Chop, chop, chop went the hoes as they hit hard-packed dirt. Sweat poured in the 90-degree heat. Breathing grew more labored. Five minutes later, they’d connected the fire line to the black top.
“Well done,” Carpenter said.
The conservancy owns or manages 24,000 acres here along the Chattahoochee Fall Line, a biodiverse swath of land that arcs from Augusta through Macon and Columbus and into Alabama. The Atlantic Ocean lapped at the fall line’s edge 65 million years ago. Today, the red clay soil of north Georgia gives way to the sandy soil of the coastal plain. The region is home to gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, pitcher plants and wild orchids – all species beloved by conservationists.
The Service, the Conservancy, the state of Georgia and a slew of nonprofits and landowners are cobbling together a corridor of protected lands along the Fall Line. Fort Benning, the ever-growing Army base nearby, is critical to the corridor’s success. The Department of Defense has purchased thousands of acres outside the base’s eastern perimeter as a buffer to keep subdivisions and sprawl from impacting the military’s ability to train. The land is permanently protected and allows conservation groups to plant longleaf pine which requires prescribed fire.
“This work helps a lot, helps the gopher tortoises, the woodpeckers and the longleaf pine, the native habitat and all sorts of ecological stuff,” said Griffin, a self-described redneck from Cayce, South Carolina. “It’s a good thing to do.”
His nickname, written in block letters on his firefighting helmet, is “Big Country.” He was raised by his grandmother, a sweet but, when necessary, stern woman. He fished and hunted. He earned a GED and drifted from roofing to construction to truck repair jobs.
Griffin joined the Job Corps in Cherokee, North Carolina where his love of the outdoors nurtured his desire to be a wildlands firefighter.
“This job teaches me how to work hard, very hard, and not give up. You’ve got to finish what you start. For me, that’s a big thing,” Griffin said. “It’s probably the best thing for me. I’m getting a bunch of experience. My friends are proud of me.”
Doing your part
Griffin and McGuin are hoping to hook up with crews fighting fires out west this summer. Neither has a permanent firefighting job lined up.
“It’s disappointing our federal partners haven’t hired many folks from our crews, especially since they have diversity goals and want to bring on young people,” Ettel said.
Wallace, the Service’s No. 2 fire guy in the Southeast, said dwindling budgets have made hiring difficult. A decade ago, for example, the region employed 134 firefighters. Today: 77.
“We haven’t hired many folks the last five years, but the future looks more promising,” Wallace said.
Maybe five of the 60 firefighters trained by TNC are still in the business, Ettel said. Griffin, one day, hopes to apply his firefighting skills to the U.S. Navy. McGuin, near-term, isn’t going anywhere.
“This job is definitely for you if you want to feel like you’re doing your part,” he said.
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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