A few hundred feet from the Davidson River in North Carolina, 20 young people sit in a classroom. It’s no ordinary class – it’s the Davidson River Initial Attack Crew in the making.
The students are in the advanced wildfire management program at Schenck Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, operated by the USDA Forest Service.
In January, the crew will begin traveling across the southeastern U.S., conducting prescribed burns and helping control wildfires. Until then, they spend their days learning. The program includes 10 weeks of National Wildfire Coordinating Group classes and field exercises such as line digging, chainsaw and pump operations, and navigation. It also includes daily physical training – running, hiking with weight, calisthenics, and even the occasional tractor tire roll or optional yoga class.
Each student has come to the crew via another Job Corps Center. There are 123 centers across the country – Job Corps is a free vocational training program for under-served youth – and the students hail from Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, DC, and West Virginia. At their former centers, they may have studied carpentry, culinary arts, forestry, welding, or another trade. Job Corps offers technical training in more than 100 career areas.
“This class is one of the most experienced cohorts we’ve had,” says Bill Coates, the acting crew superintendent. Some students have already worked on more than 30 wildfires.
Coates beams when he talks about the students. Although young – all of them are younger than 24 – many have lived through upheaval and are overcoming significant struggles. In the classroom, conversations about communication, resilience, ethics, and diversity are common. Lives are at stake – many of the students will go on to work as wildland firefighters. They are acutely aware of the dangers they’ll face.
“We strive to lay a foundation for developing the best decision-makers, risk-managers, and leaders in the profession,” says Sam Lewis, the acting assistant superintendent.
The program began in 2007 and has turned out over 140 graduates. Most have gone on to careers in wildland fire, and some, like Eddie Baxter, have returned to Schenck. “I graduated in 2015 along with my twin brother, Warren,” says Baxter. “We’ve both come back for details since then.” Baxter is a senior firefighter at Boise National Forest in Idaho, and he’s spending a month on detail at Schenck, teaching the classes he once sat in.
Classes include Wildland Fire Chainsaws, Portable Pumps and Water Use, and Ignition Operations. “It’s a high pressure occupation that we’re training them for,” says Julian Esquivel, who has been a squad leader since 2009.
In 2009, the program was still getting off the ground, under the guidance of Jody Baxter and others. Many people from different agencies and offices have supported the program, especially in its early days.
Anthony Conte, who passed away suddenly in April 2018, served as the program superintendent for years. He was a champion to the program, and his death continues to reverberate through the Forest Service. The Davidson River Initial Attack Crew will dedicate a memorial plaque to Conte on November 3, during a benefit event for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.
“Watching the program grow and prosper has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career,” says Bill Carothers, a field office representative. Carothers has supported the program for years – he began going out with Schenck Type II fire crews in 2002. He was also chair of the steering committee in 2007.
“The Davidson River Initial Attack Crew has become well known and highly respected,” says Carothers. “It’s been a great privilege to work alongside graduates of the program.”
Job placement is a priority for Job Corps centers. In 2017, Schenck Job Corps Center was ranked number one, both overall and in graduate job placement. Tammy Wentland is the Center Director.
The Davidson River Initial Attack Crew is administratively hosted by the National Forests of North Carolina.
For more information, email Bill Coates at email@example.com.