The Veterans Fire AmeriCorps program is a cooperative program between the Student Conservation Association (SCA), AmeriCorps and the U.S. Forest Service. SCA prepares military veterans, from all branches of the armed forces, for positions as wildland firefighters.
This was the first summer the Bearlodge Ranger District, located in Sundance, Wyoming, hosted a Veterans Fire AmeriCorps Team. Another SCA veteran team served on the Mystic Ranger District, outside of Rapid City, South Dakota.
“The Bearlodge Ranger District enjoyed hosting the crew this year,” said Steve Kozel, Bearlodge District Ranger. “They have honorably served their country and this is a way to give back. It provides them with opportunities and experience for pursuing careers with the agency and/or other natural resource departments.”
The SCA teams were sent to a two week long training at the Colorado Firecamp in Salida, Colorado, where they completed and received certifications for wildland firefighting, chain saw training, Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) training and completed the arduous pack test, which consists of a 3-mile walk carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes.
Bearlodge veteran crew member, Katy Tuckerman from Blissfield, Michigan, served in the army as a Civil Affairs and Intel Analyst. She said a highlight of the summer was her first fire assignment on a fire engine to the Bighorn Basin area. While there, her crew was assigned to initial attack where they were some of the first firefighters to respond to incidents. She said they hiked in bladder bags; a collapsible backpack portable sprayer fitted with a pump, and also suppressed fire using mobile attack, which is where an engine moves behind a person spraying water from a nozzle attached to the truck.
“The Forest Service fire program has a lot of similarities to the military,” said Tuckerman. “A lot of veteran’s struggle getting back into civilian life and this program is a good way to transition back into it.”
The crew also had opportunities to explore other areas of the Forest Service, including GIS (mapping), Timber, Fuels and Public Information. The crew was able to serve with and experience other districts on the Black Hills National Forest as well. The team also connected with local communities by completing community service projects, such as working with Bear Butte Gardens.
Matt Ball, Bearlodge veteran crew member from Fort Collins, Colorado, continues to serve in the Army Reserve as a Veterinary Tech. He enjoyed becoming chain saw qualified and using the saw on several cutting projects. “It’s a good gateway program,” said Ball. “If you’re a veteran and you are interested in becoming a wildland firefighter, SCA and AmeriCorps will help you take the necessary steps to pursue that goal.”
Courtney Wismer from Clayton, Wisconsin, served in the Navy as a Gas Turbine Tech. Also part of the Bearlodge veteran crew, she said going on her first fire, the Iron Mountain Fire, was a highlight. “It was only 0.10 acre, but very exciting.” The crew got to help with hose lays and cut down a burning tree. “The program is important because there are good job placement opportunities,” said Wismer.
Daniella Drader, Bearlodge veteran crew lead from Seattle, Washington has worked with SCA since 2002.
“Being part of this program, for me, was a way to give back, support and help,” said Drader. “I’m grateful for the experience and much more aware of the challenges that vet’s may face when returning to the civilian sector.”
Drader said the program is a win-win for veterans and the Forest Service. “They both get a preview,” said Drader. “It gives veterans an opportunity to learn a new skill and see if firefighting is something they want to do as a career. It gives the Forest additional personnel resources to fight fire and reduce hazardous fuels.”
Drader said, along with receiving wildland firefighter qualifications, there are several other benefits to the program. Through an AmeriCorps grant, the crew receives a stipend every two weeks. SCA and AmeriCorps also cover the costs for the crew’s trainings, living expenses, travel and provide a food budget. Fire specific equipment is provided by the Forest Service including, fire tools, Nomex clothing and other gear. The Forest Service also provided other trainings and helped get the crew out on fire assignments.
The Team is completing their season with the Forest Service at the end of this summer. Drader said that everyone on the Bearlodge veteran’s crew has been hired as temporary GS-3 Forest Service firefighters at the Bearlodge Ranger District. “When the season is over, they will continue working at the Bearlodge office through September.”
Veterans wishing to learn more about SCA’s Veterans Fire AmeriCorps program visit, http://www.thesca.org/serve/program/veterans-fire-corps. Additional information on internship opportunities can be found by contacting the Student Conservation Association (SCA) or by going to their website at http://www.thesca.org.
See SCA crew photos on the New Black Hills National Forest Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Forest-Service-Black-Hills-National-Forest/1386023841658215
For more information on the Black Hills National Forest, visit, http://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills or call (605) 673-9200.