SCA's Michael Madalena on the VFC
The men and women I’m training know we’re about to confront a merciless enemy. We are all military veterans, and in the ﬁeld we have an objective, a plan, and the ﬂexibility to change tactics midstream — just as in the armed forces.
In this case our adversary isn’t al-Qaida or any of the other combatants I faced with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq; it’s not even human but it eats, breathes and grows.
It’s the nearly 32,000 wildﬁres that the U.S. Department of the Interior says have burned more than 3.4 million acres nationwide this year. These are not low-intensity ground ﬁres, but “mega ﬁres” created from lack of mitigation and irregular historic ﬁre regimes.
I’m a crew leader for the nonproﬁt Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps, which is tackling two seemingly unrelated challenges: giving veterans much-needed job training in the ﬁeld of forestry as well as the opportunity to battle the wildﬁres raging across the western half of the United States. The Veterans Fire Corps (www.veteransﬁrecorps.org) is a 90-day training program conducted in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that gives military veterans the chance to explore conservation-related careers, including containing wildﬁres.
Our crews mostly focus on ﬁre mitigation — clearing out dead trees, debris and other potential fuels, prepping areas for prescribed burns and then burning them. But when a wildﬁre ﬂares, our guys gear up and ﬁght it alongside the Forest Service, resulting in the best on-the-job training anyone could ask for.
It’s a challenge for many veterans to ﬁnd a job and build a career after returning home from military service. That’s especially true in this economy, and it’s particularly hard to ﬁnd a job that not only relates closely to military service, but draws directly on military training and discipline. The Veterans Fire Corps addresses all of that: taking advantage of military training — and especially a warrior’s readiness to adapt to and overcome rapidly changing conditions — in order to confront a continuing growing danger of national signiﬁcance.
On Aug. 20, the United States hit the highest level on the national wildﬁre preparedness scale, which charts wildﬁre activity. A total of 18,000 ﬁreﬁghters were simultaneously tackling 48 major blazes in nine Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently said that wildﬁres have become so numerous this season that ﬁreﬁghters are stretched thin.
The primary challenges for the Veterans Fire Corps are to increase its size as well as focus the ﬁght the men and women in my unit still have in them as we move off in a new direction — while still protecting the land of the free and home of the brave. For now, the Corps operates only from May through December, when the threat of wildﬁres is greatest. Yet we have a great opportunity to grow because so many veterans are returning home and need this transition from military leadership to conservation leaders.
One thing is crystal clear as we watch the increasing damage of wildﬁres: Fire mitigation is highly essential all year long. It’s a mistake to simply react to ﬁres. We must also take action to reduce the potential for their destructive power.
The beneﬁts of the Veterans Fire Corps, in that regard, are clear. That it provides ﬁre mitigation, enhances conservation and trains more ﬁreﬁghters who already have a solid background while also providing job opportunities for veterans is a signiﬁcant achievement.
In addition, the Corps helps veterans transition back into civilian life. That can be a tough road, as I know ﬁrsthand. But it’s been easier for me now that I’m again part of a team. We have a uniform again and a real sense of importance that we felt in the military. Having that fellowship, trusting someone with your life, is important to a lot of returning veterans.
As an SCA Veterans Fire Corps leader, my mission to veterans is to provide them with hands-on experience, inspire them to live a life of stewardship and train them to be future conservation leaders.
The Veteran Fire Corps is a life-changing experience and a win-win for all — except the wildﬁres.
Michael A. Madalena served as a riﬂeman in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a crew leader with the Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps. He lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.