Editors’ Note: Chuck Ervin is the Priority Populations Program Manager within the Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program at the Watershed Research and Training Center. Chuck studied fire protection technology through the San Diego Miramar technical program while working in forestry and fire management for various federal land management agencies. Chuck then worked as a fire management specialist, planning and implementing prescribed fires on privately held lands. Chuck earned a B.S. in Wildfire Science and the Urban Interface through C.S.U. San Marcos, where they researched equity in WUI fire outcomes. Chuck makes a home with their spouse and two children on Mono Land in eastern Fresno county. 

In California, priority populations are a critical facet of the fire resiliency labor force. In particular, they are the front-line workers that perform the bulk of vegetation management prior to wildfires, disaster relief during fire events, and recovery after a fire event. But for the overwhelming majority of workers in these front-line communities, that’s where their career in fire ends—in the lowest paid and inherently short-term level roles, lacking any exposure or access to power or decision making, let alone a viable career pathway. Yet we wonder, “Why is the wildfire space so lacking in diversity?”

All the while, front-line communities experience the worst of what the climate (meteorologically and politically) has to offer: a lack of secure housing, economic hardship, and exposure to hazardous environments among many other burdens.

In searching for the intersection of people, place and power in California’s wildfire paradigm; the observant come to the conclusion that these communities are underserved because of their lack of representation in the wildfire resilience space. Just as biodiversity is necessary to present a range of adaptations suitable for changing conditions, our fire adaptation strategy requires us to maximize the range of perspectives and lived experiences considered by bringing priority populations to the table.  

A colossal, often self-sustaining system of homogenization stands in the way of building resiliency for these communities and the landscapes that they call home.  

The Regional Forest and Fire Capacity Program (RFFC) at the Watershed Research and Training Center (WRTC) is seeking to address the need for representation of priority populations in the wildfire resilience workforce. To this end, we are partnering with organizations that already serve priority populations on the individual scale to provide pathways to meaningful and rewarding careers in conservation and land management: the many local conservation corps of California.  

As community-based organizations, local conservation corps address barriers to employment for priority populations by integrating continuing education into the work week, offering flexible work schedules, providing training opportunities, and hosting career placement services. Participants in local conservation corps, or Corps Members, face a range of barriers, from intergenerational poverty to mental, physical and legal issues. Almost all local conservation Corps Members live beneath the federal poverty line. Many are first generation Americans with language barriers and/or have yet to complete high school. 

Leveraging RFFC resources and technical expertise from the Watershed Center, we are enhancing the organizational capacity at Conservation Corps North Bay through an 18-month pilot program including a coaching commitment from our very own Co-Director of Fire Management, Miller Bailey. Along with organizational development, we’re also providing individual wildfire-focused workforce development mentorship to individual Corps Members, with the goal of helping them find gainful employment in the wildfire resilience space. 

 

What you see in the above video is just the start for some of our promising first cohort of Corps Members. In addition to the two-week training, which included Basic 32 fire training, S-212 chainsaw operations and safety, and a work capacity pack test, participants were invited to apply for extended training and mentorship. From those applicants we selected five Corps Members and one supervisor who, by the time this blog is published, will have participated in their first prescribed burn project. Additionally, another participant in our training was selected for the Fire Forward Fellowship, an intensive and coveted prescribed fire leadership program offered by our partners at Audubon Canyon Ranch.  

Participants in our mentorship program were asked to write cover letters explaining how mentorship would help their careers. Here are some excerpts:

“Employment in fire resilience [is] important for Sonoma and my community.”

[This is] invaluable experience to continue laying the foundations for a career in fire.”

“[These trainings and mentorship are] furthering any and all types of leadership skills.”

“My current goal is to become a firefighter, and I feel that the prescribed fire training program would be a great resource to help me achieve this. I feel passionate about protecting and assisting my community.”

“It feels fulfilling to make a positive impact. This training [is] tremendous in elevating my job into a career.”

To echo that last sentiment, as the person writing this piece, I would say that providing these trainings is difficult work; mentorship is an emotionally burdensome task. However, I am certain the impact of this work is far greater than any other endeavor I have made in my 15 years working in fire and forest management. The Watershed Center is reaching folks already engaged in hazardous fuel reduction and exposing them to career pathways that most of them either didn’t know existed, or thought were out of reach. And central to who the Watershed Center is as an organization, we are promoting values of holistic land ethic along the way. Training by training. Person by person. We are building representation. These trainings provide benefits for every participant, but for some, the experience is truly life-changing.  

We hope to obtain more resources to support this work and to scale our model for local Corps Members across California.  We are also continuously accepting proposals to join our diverse training cadre of instructors to make these trainings possible. (And yes, we are accepting bids from out of state!) Lastly, if you have a training, job fair, prescribed burn or other event that could benefit our mentees, please let me know.  

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