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FIGHTING IRE WITH FIRE; VIOLENT YOUTHS LEARN TEAMWORK BATTLING BLAZES OFFENDERS FIGHT FIRES.

Byline: Jesse Hiestand Daily News Staff Writer

The steep foothills of the Angeles National Forest glow a dozen shades of green with El Nino's bounty.

Snaking through the wildflowers and chest-high brush this past week were the 21 yellow-clad youngsters, among them the most violent kids convicted of gang crimes, selling drugs and other offenses. But that day they were trudging up and down a mountain in the midday heat while carrying shovels, pickaxes and backpacks stuffed with canteens - and bricks.

This forced march up what they call Mount Kill 'em Quick, is both punishment and preparation for these youngsters as young as 17 who are learning to fight wildfires for the Los Angeles County Probation Department's Camp Louis Routh.

``There's a lot of brush and a lot of fuel - it's going to be a heavy fire season,'' said Ruben, an 18-year-old crew leader doing time for burglary and assault.

He is right.

Record-setting rains and the potential for fire have prompted the camp to boost the size of its inmate population by 33 percent, from about 75 to 100.

``We've got unparalleled growth, and that means an unparalleled fire season,'' said Supervising Deputy Probation Officer Bill Nienhuis, the camp's assistant director. ``It worries the stink out of me. We don't know what we're in for.''

For 15 years, the camp has turned out junior firefighters who stand shoulder to shoulder with Los Angeles County fire crews, cutting fire breaks around infernos that scorch hillsides across the county from May through December.

``They're an integral part of our system,'' said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Mike Turek. ``We take them into inaccessible areas where we can't get a fire engine or water in, and we bring them to the fire's edge, and they do a very important job.''

Fires just beginning

Since January, the camp's crews have responded to two fires, including one in Porter Ranch.

``It was our first fire,'' said Sergio, 18, a crew tool man convicted of assault. ``We got dressed quick, and even people who didn't get along forgot about that. After you get there you see the smoke and feel like a real firefighter. You get pumped up.''

He recalled that on the fire line, the tension between two rival gang members on his team melted away. ``They didn't even talk in the dorm, but at the fire they got along.''

It is dangerous work, but despite that - or perhaps because of it - the crews plunge into their work with verve and are eagerly awaiting the full onslaught of an El Nino fire season expected to bring far more than the 500 call-outs of last season.

``We've told them this is going to be a pretty good season, and for us, pretty good means action,'' said Los Angeles County fire crew supervisor Jeff Kaliher. ``The kids live for the sound of the bell. Their eyes are as wide as can be.''

The failure rate for those who don't cut it physically or because of attitude is about one in seven, Kaliher said. Yet of those who succeed, the recidivism rate is just 20 percent in the first two years after they are released from the camp. Those who don't make it get transferred back to juvenile hall or other work camps.

No vacation

Staff at the camp up Big Tujunga Canyon Road tolerate no outbursts or violence from their charges, who live in three sparse dorms, sleeping on gunmetal-gray cots on a concrete floor, their hard hats and backpacks at the ready.

``It's amazing when they got out on a fire and get their adrenalin up,'' said Deputy Probation Officer Cathy Genova. ``I've never seen kids as excited as they are coming back after a fire. It's just incredible how well they work together.''

The importance of teamwork is pounded into them during the 10 days of training that includes lectures, a 100-question final exam on firefighting techniques and a trek up Kill 'em Quick in less than 30 minutes in full gear.

Beyond the drills, they spend their days in school and adhering to a code of conduct that can dock points and add time to their sentence for disrespecting staff, using profanity or seemingly minor offenses like having a half-filled canteen or scruffy boots.

Many of the kids whose wild antics on the streets landed them in the juvenile justice system say they've grown accustomed to the regimentation and appreciate the emphasis on teamwork.

``It made me put out more than I thought I could,'' Sergio said.

Most of the kids earn their high school diploma or an equivalent degree there, and some profess that they will swear off gang life and pursue college. A few have even become real firefighters.

Removing the probationers from the temptations and troubles of their urban environment is key to that transformation, Kaliher said.

On recent trail-clearing duty near Altadena, members of a crew dropped their tools and stood mesmerized by the sight of a stream, something these city kids were not used to seeing.

``They said, this is our childhood. We lost this because we were gangbanging,'' Kaliher said. ``So I said, do your work and I'll let you sit there and look at this stream. And these guys worked like you wouldn't believe so they could stare at a stream.''

Hazards vs. rewards

The actual firefighting is not without its hazards. While most recent injuries were minor, usually cuts from razor-sharp shovels and other tools, the fire-camp program was shut down completely in the late 1960s when several juvenile firefighters were killed battling a blaze.

The program was restarted in 1983 with the opening of Camp Routh. Since then, a second camp has been added, Camp Paige in La Verne.

The county spent $5.4 million on the two camps in 1997-98, and the Los Angeles County Fire Department contributed an additional $512,000, said Ron Millar, the Probation Department's budget officer.

However, the value of these juvenile firefighters is much more, by some accounts.

``If we had to hire people to do what we do, it would cost the county a lot more,'' said supervising Deputy Probation Officer John Hopson. ``And it does a lot more than that. It helps out in so many other ways, teaching them responsibility and maturity along with everything else.''

While fighting a blaze, the young firefighters work a shift of 12 hours on, followed by a day off. The rewards for a job well done can include time off their sentence and a steak dinner.

With its steep terrain, the Angeles National Forest is a notoriously tough area to fight wildfires, he said. The potential for those fires is now great.

``I look around and see nothing but fuel, and to me that's gasoline,'' Kaliher said. ``There's grass where there never used to be grass, even on the face of sheer cliffs.''

The prospect of a heavy fire season does not phase Eddie, a 19-year-old Van Nuys gang member who wields a chain saw for his crew despite an attempted-murder conviction.

``It's pretty fun and exciting,'' he said. ``Once fire season does come, we're going to get a lot of calls. But I like being able to go out and work with the public rather than be in (juvenile) hall where you're in a room almost 24 hours a day.''

Added his crew chief, Ruben: ``It feels good to be behind the sirens instead of in front of them.''

CAPTION(S):

5 Photos

PHOTO (1 -- color) Young inmates at Camp Louis Routh in Tujunga make a timed run up a steep trail as part of their training in firefighting techniques.

(2 -- color) Inmates at Camp Louis Routh, run by the county Probation Department, line up for a drink of water.

(3 -- color) Young inmates take a short break on a fire trail after a steep climb up brush-covered slopes in the Angeles National Forest.

(4 -- color) A group of inmates sets off on a training hike carrying shovels, pickaxes and backpacks stuffed with canteens - and bricks.

(5 -- color) Deputy Probation Officer Greg Smith shows how bricks are placed in the backpacks of inmates to simulate a real load in a firefighting situation.

Phil McCarten/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Words:1368
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