Spring break goes to blazes for students

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Clad in new, flame-retardant suits, complete with Forest Service-green pants, almost two dozen high-school seniors gave up their spring break to become the Stanislaus National Forest's newest batch of blaze battlers.

They were among a group of 18- to 21-year-olds who this week endured 40 hours of training eight in the field and 32 in the classroom to qualify for firefighting jobs this summer.

Sponsored by Tuolumne County Recreation Department and the U.S. Forest Service, the program teaches seniors and other young adults to become wildland firefighters.

The week-long session is free, and students receive a helmet, gloves, goggles and suits of flame-retardant Nomex from the Forest Service. Boots come courtesy of a $5,000 grant from Sonora Area Foundation, said Betty Cones of the Recreation Department.

The program began two years ago, when Cones decided the best way to prevent teenage pregnancy was to keep kids employed.

"I thought, 'OK, the Forest Service needs people and these kids need jobs,'" Cones said. Then she realized the department's activity coordinator, Wendy Flannery, was a Stanislaus Hot Shot firefighter before working for the county.

"It just seemed like a perfect fit," Cones said.

Most students end up working on the Stanislaus, Cones said, but some go to other national forests or the California Department of Forestry.

"Our main goal is to get the kids jobs anywhere," Cones said. "But the Forest Service has the goal of getting them a job in the Forest Service."

Engine Capt. Dave Shekell said he was scoping new talent while he helped train.

"This is a real good applicant pool," Shekell said. With hundreds of applications for a few positions, "it's real important to put a name with a face."

Shekell said he knows these students were taught well and will come in ready to fight flames qualities that could help improve their resumes.

The Union Democrat
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