Park helps veterans learn firefighting

Veteran's Fire Corp Roving Team sends veterans to Grand Canyon National Park to learn wildland firefighting skills

From Left: Donovan Hayes, Sean Ansted, Wesley Adams, G.C.N.P Fire Archeologist Jeremy Pribyl, Lukus Albin, Laren Nowell, and Aaron Mills take a break from digging fire lines around archeological sites on Sept. 25.  Loretta Yerian/WGCN

From Left: Donovan Hayes, Sean Ansted, Wesley Adams, G.C.N.P Fire Archeologist Jeremy Pribyl, Lukus Albin, Laren Nowell, and Aaron Mills take a break from digging fire lines around archeological sites on Sept. 25. Loretta Yerian/WGCN

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - A new partnership between the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and the National Park Service helps veterans transition from the military into a civilian world and into federal firefighting jobs. Some of the training is taking place at the Grand Canyon.

Founded in 1957, the SCA, a non-profit organization, began to recruit and build a generation of leaders interested in conservation and a lifelong stewardship of the land.

SCA's Veteran's Fire Corp (VFC) is a 90-day training program that partners with the U.S. Forest Service. The VFC provides hands on training for post 911 military veterans in wildland fire mitigation. Projects range from conducting prescribed burns and programs with wildfires to fuel mitigation, the process of thinning trees.

For the first time the VFC and the National Park Service has decided to partner and build relationships for future teams.

Normally after a two-week training camp in Colorado, the VFC stations a team of five members and one project leader in a specific region of the country for the duration of the 90-day program.

Wesley Adams, a former Navy corpsman and the project leader for a VFC team, said this is hopefully only the beginning of a relationship between the VFC and the National Park Service.

"My particular team is the first to actually work with the National Parks," Adams said. "Our team is called a roving team and it's unique because we're establishing relationships with the park service."

Beginning July 25, Adam's team will have worked in four national parks and one national forest. Starting in Quinault National Park in northwest Washington and moving on to Roosevelt National Recreation Area, also in Washington, the team spent time in Yosemite National Park before arriving at Grand Canyon National Park. They finish their three-month trip in early November at Prescott National Forest.

"Right now we are doing archeological preparation for prescribed burns scheduled to take place at the Long Jim and Shoshone three burn units. We dig a line around archeological sites to protect them during burns." Adams said. "Depending on weather conditions, we will possibly be doing some slash pile burning on the North Rim as well."

Daniel Pearson, fire management officer for the South District of Grand Canyon National Park, said he hopes to work more with VFC in the future.

"I think it's quite rewarding, they have similar traits to wildland firefighters," Pearson said. "They enjoy the outdoors, physical labor, the camaraderie, and they share a common interest. My experience in the past with hiring veterans has been very good. They're mission focused, are used to taking orders, work as a team, and work until the job is completed. When we heard about this program we were really excited to be a part of it."

Adams said the program helps veterans find meaningful work after their military service.

"You want to do things for your community and you also want to know you have a career. The SCA provides for that." Adams said. "Upon completion and throughout our time, we talk about where to apply for wildland firefighting positions and writing resumes. All your training and outdoor experience can be beneficial. We give them the skills, the training, the experience and the networking ability for future success.

"You can also work into the private industry or maybe open up your own fuel mitigation business. You don't have to stay in the firefighting field. These guys perform 450 hours of service for the parks and forests. At the end of their service they're given an AmeriCorps award, that's an educational grant and can be used for things like student housing, books, tuition, purchasing a laptop, anything towards education."

To qualify for the VFC, a veteran must be honorably discharged. The program is open to men and women and no previous firefighting experience is required. Veterans are not obligated to the SCA after they finish the program and are not required to sign any contracts upon completion.

Pearson said a career in wildland firefighting is in demand.

"We always need wildland firefighters on a national scale," Pearson said. "So anything we can do to help them transition into civilian life, while keeping that same integrity and work ethic, improves the overall capability of national level firefighters. It's an A+ all the way around."

According to Adams, VFC sends out surveys after the program ends. Of the 50 percent that replied 30 percent have jobs.

Laren Nowell a native of Oklahoma served eight years in the Air Force and completes the program on Nov. 2.

"It's a positive experience to work with the national parks. If we decide to apply for a position with them we already know what to expect and they know what we can do. Its better that we're not just another name on a paper. They can see the name and remember who we were and what we did with them," Nowell said.

Sean Ansted a Marine originally from the San Francisco area has enjoyed the beauty of the national parks and said SCA has given him a head start on future jobs.

"I've never seen the Grand Canyon so to come down here is pretty remarkable," Ansted said. "The contracts, the certifications have all helped. It's surpassed what I expected."

Adams said an interest in conservation and a willingness to learn and work hard takes you a long way in the VFC.

"It's a hard job, it's a rewarding job," Adams said. "It's also a great experience all around. Dan Pearson said it best 'We can teach you the experience but we can't give you the work ethic.'"

More information on the Veterans Fire Corp and the Student Conservation Association is available at www.thesca.org/serve/program/veterans-fire-corps

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