A year after moving in with my father, I dropped out of high school and began using drugs and running with a gang. Quickly, I made my way into juvenile hall, then county jail, and state prison. I spent the better part of 19 years in and out of incarceration.
For the last 10 years, I had a burning desire to change my life but didn’t know where to begin.
I couldn’t find my true purpose and place in the world. When I went to prison in 2017, I dug into books and self-help programs that helped me reflect on my life. I began to dissect every aspect of my life, from childhood up to that point. During the rest of my time in prison, I took college courses and began expanding my knowledge through education.
Through good behavior and positive programming, I received an opportunity to join the inmate Fire Camp program. When I accepted this opportunity, I knew this challenge could help me turn my life around. I started their vigorous training and developed a major interest in what this line of work entailed. I focused on physical exercise such as intense hiking and trail running. I got into great physical shape and faced challenges that were both physical and mental but learned to overcome them. I am a huge self-motivator and self-starter. I’ve pushed myself both physically and mentally in making myself fit to perform the duties of a wildland firefighter. I reached new heights that I did not know I could reach. I was surpassing my own expectations and those of my family.
I served the inmate fire camp program for about 2 seasons. I learned the basic fundamentals of wildland firefighting. I learned fireline construction. I was “Last Tool” on a 14-man hand crew. “Last Tool” is a starter position that I exceeded quickly. I learned proper tool usage and worked my way up the line to first sawyer. Let me tell you, that chainsaw position is the best position to be in on handcrew! Later, I received the opportunity to be crew leader where I learned the usage of Radios and proper Radio etiquette. I learned to navigate to fire incidents, crew management, and so much more. Responding to fire calls has been one of the most exciting things for me. The rush of adrenaline knowing you're about to put in some hard work and assist in protecting lives, property, and resources.
One experience I would like to share comes from the Alisol Fire in Santa Barbara, CA, back in October 2021. I was “Second Sawyer” at the time. I was cutting a thick branch off a live tree. This branch was about five inches in diameter from where it bifurcated, and was very long; the end of it was touching the ground. I hadn’t finished the cut when the First Sawyer on my crew asked me to allow him to finish it. He was taller than me, which would have made it easier for him to finish the cut. I backed off and was about twice the distance away from that long thick branch. When the Sawyer finished the cut, it somehow catapulted toward me and a couple other guys standing by me. I was holding my saw, when the long thick branch was coming down towards me. I barely had any distance to move back quickly. It hit me on the right side of my chest, above my peck. Initially, it knocked all the wind out of me. If it wasn’t for those two or three steps I had taken backward, it would have most likely hit me in the face and would have really caused a serious injury.
I stumbled in pain, unable to breathe, and felt dizzy. I put the saw down and quickly found a place to sit. The captain and my crewmates rushed over to me and checked that I was okay as my captain was also a paramedic. They took my shirt off and began checking for broken ribs or any other injuries this may have caused. Soon thereafter I regained my ability to breathe normally and felt alive again. I was okay, thank God! I gathered myself after a few minutes. Luckily, I didn’t need any further medical attention. I stood up, picked up my saw, smiled, and got back to work.
I decided to share this experience because it shows the type of character of the men and women in the wildland arena. Not only is it dangerous and a continuous hazardous environment but it also takes a certain type of people to be out there.
Honestly, I believe we are a unique set of people with unique qualities.
The gratification I feel up there on that mountain after 16- or even a 24-hour shift is amazing. Overcoming events like that continue to build character and can either make or break a person. It’s made me appreciate safety, situational awareness, and look up, down, and around. I believe wildland firefighters are not easily moved or broken by these events, but rather makes us stronger. It’s unique in the purest sense of the word. Knowing that we are out there doing the work that not just anybody is willing to do. It takes a different kind of breed, in my opinion. It’s truly been a life changing experience for me.
I’ve since been released and have been home for about 9 months. I joined a Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program which has been a major part of the turnaround I made in my life. It has helped me earn the certifications needed to be qualified in the fire service. It has helped me continue to maintain high levels of physical and mental fitness. I maintain high levels of discipline and motivation. Time management, accountability, integrity, and leadership have become such a huge part of my life. I am currently about to graduate from this program in April. It has truly been a privilege and blessing having been able to participate in such a program with the types of Chiefs and Captains there.
For the past five weeks, I’ve been attending a Fire Academy at a college in Yuba, CA where I’m earning my Firefighter 1c certificate. Myself and a handful of guys from my crew at the program travel up together from southern California. Crew life is amazing to me because events like this draw us closer and builds these great bonds. It is always a team effort to get us up there and back. I believe that’s what all this is about.
Crew cohesion and team work and all being in accord with the same goals–to be students of fire and doing whatever it takes to set ourselves up for success.
Another experience I would like to share further demonstrates the strength of will it takes to go through tough situations. While at the academy this past weekend, we were training on Progressive Hose Lays. Two person teams, 500 feet in under eight minutes. It was 38 degrees with a heavy drizzle coming down, everyone was soaking wet–wet gloves and boots. Everyone was cold but kept moving through the rotations and picking up to re-rolling hoses. Pushing through uncomfortable situations like this is what defines the people in the fire service. The feeling we get after going through something like this is amazing. Feelings of accomplishment–knowing you just did some hard stuff under a very uncomfortable circumstance. Afterwards we were laughing and joking about what we just went through. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever felt thus far.
Being away from our families and missing events are absolute factors. In my opinion, it is unfortunate to miss birthdays, holidays, or special events, but my focus is always on the bigger picture. I am now part of something bigger than myself because I am involved in a world of public service, such that it includes giving back to the communities and participating in toy drives/food drives, giving to those in need. I can't picture myself doing anything other than this. Being in the fire service is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. When I reflect on my past, it does not compare to who I am now and who I will be in the future.