See the journey to a new career at a wildland fire academy

Ex-gang members, veterans and immigrants alike take a three-month course to become California firefighters.


Two cadets time each other while carrying a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) during a physical agility test.

Each year, close to 50 men and women graduate from the Rio Hondo Wildland Fire Academy in Whitter, California, starting careers as wildland firefighters.

While it’s easy to assume that the recruits are drawn to wildfire fighting by its emphasis on traditional tropes of masculinity, such as physical strength, scrappiness and heroics, the reality is more complicated than that. Photographer Christian Monterrosa spent three months with men who recently graduated from Rio Hondo, learning their stories. Many said they were driven by complex situations, from wanting to provide for their families, to dreaming of doing meaningful work for society. Their ranks included ex-gang members, military veterans and recent immigrants.

“I do it for my kids,” explained one graduate, Franco Barahona, whose wife, Jessica, gave birth to their third child, Samson, a day after his graduation. “I want them to grow up and be proud of me.”

Cadets pile onto each other during a “folded tarp” exercise where they must figure out how to stay on top of a shrinking surface area.

Job Sanchez feels his new buzz cut in shock the night before the academy starts. After quitting his full-time job as a bank teller, Sanchez needed to work nights and weekends to make ends meet during the three-month academy.

Lead instructor Ryan Carey, 35, was a Hotshot firefighter before a back injury ended his career. He has since taught four academies at Rio Hondo. “At the heart of it, I’m a teacher. I love the fact that even if they don’t continue on in their career, I can take pride in teaching them life skills.”

Franky Lopez yells out his name during a shelter deployment drill. At any time during the program, instructors may call for cadets to deploy. They are given seconds to find a safe deployment site, rid themselves of all flammable equipment, and properly place their "feet to the heat."

Class leader Eric Doty is praised by his fellow cadets at the end of a physically trying day.

Job Sanchez and Johnny Hernandez discuss their plans for the future after a grueling field day.

Dominic Ramirez catches his breath after completing the academy’s final hike, which included surprise medical emergency scenarios, shelter deployments and hiking with a chainsaw.

The cadets hike down a mountain in the Angeles National Forest carrying their 50-pound packs, full protective gear, axes and rakes.

Franco Barahona holds his newborn child, Samson, at a hospital in San Diego, California. His wife, Jessica, went into labor a day after his graduation from Rio Hondo. Barahona left behind a life surrounded by gang violence and a job as a roofer to become a firefighter.

Christian Monterrosa is a Los Angeles, California photographer that documents the effects of climate change on human life, as well as social justice issues surrounding the Latinx community. Follow @chrismatography on Instagram. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor