A California fire department forges a new generation of conservation practitioners

In wealthy, segregated Marin County, a pioneering recruitment program breaks down barriers to the firefighting profession

 

It was noon— and lunchtime. Armando Jimenez and Jesús Chavez took off their hard hats and sat down at a picnic table in Memorial Park in Marin County, California. The park is bordered on three sides by a playground, a parking lot and a baseball field. If a fire threatened it, it would likely approach from the fourth side, a steep hill that was, until recently, covered with flammable brush.

Thanks to Jimenez, Chavez and their crewmates, that hillside has since been cleared of small trees, branches and twigs. Now, if a spark ignited a fire, the flames would be much less likely to climb into the treetops and start a dangerous conflagration.

Jimenez and Chavez are part of the first cohort of FIRE Foundry, a job-training program that aims to diversify the Marin County Fire Department and possibly serve as a model, not only for the firefighting profession but for the broader conservation workforce. With funding from the state of California and earnings from its own fuel-reduction services, FIRE Foundry offers its recruits full-time employment, temporary housing at the fire station, assistance with basic expenses, mental health support, tutoring, free uniforms and boots, a full scholarship at the local community college and training in emerging fire technology, including remote sensing programs and predictive services. 

“I really want to see more minorities in the fire service,” said 21-year-old Jimenez, who was born and raised in Mexico and sought asylum in the United States in 2010. “That’s the major thing (that) made me want to join.”

Despite studies suggesting that communities are best served by first responders who reflect local diversity, professional firefighters are overwhelmingly white and male — both in Marin County and nationwide. Marin is one of California’s richest counties. It’s also the most segregated county in the Bay Area, and so, several years ago, Fire Chief Jason Weber decided to tackle his department’s diversity problem by addressing its deeper causes.

One of those causes, said Weber, is that the “feeder programs” that funnel people into the profession — volunteer and seasonal firefighting programs, junior college classes that lead to further training — offer low or no wages. “We’re trying to break that mold,” he said. “We’re trying to break systemic cycles of poverty, generational poverty, and that has to do with the importance of a sustainable-wage career.”

While the program is still in its infancy, observers say its approach could help diversify related professions in land management and restoration. “I know the (conservation) world really well, and it is and always has been dominated by white men,” said Rhea Suh, current president of the Marin Community Foundation and a former leader of diversity programs for the Department of the Interior. “I am fascinated that there are people on the ground like the Marin fire chief, who’s saying to himself, without any kind of outside pressure, ‘We have to figure out a sustainable way to maintain our pipeline and ... if we are going to attract more people of color, more women, we need to have a different attitude and posture.’” 

“These can be the great jobs of the next century.”

As the impacts of climate change deepen, Suh pointed out, demand for workers trained in restoration and adaptation will only grow. “We know the fires are coming. We know sea-level rise is happening. Why can’t we really think about the pipeline for these positions?” she asked. “These can be the great jobs of the next century.”

At the lunch table, Chavez said that, at 23, he was surprised to find himself back in school, taking EMT classes. But, he said, “I have to face it. It’s to become a better person for myself.”

As a kid, he said, he wanted to join the fire service but didn’t know how to get in. He applied for FIRE Foundry after seeing it advertised on Instagram. He soon took to the hard work, the time outdoors, and the camaraderie among his fellow firefighters.

“They get down and dirty,” he said. “I like that. Everyone’s close, like a whole family.”   

Danielle Venton is a science reporter interested in wildfire resilience working out of the California Bay Area. 

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