Veterans Fire Corps Program Profile: Southeast Conservation Corps

 

Southeast Conservation Corps (SECC) launched its first Veterans Fire Corps (VFC) program in 2018. What started as a short-term pilot is now a comprehensive 10-month-long program designed to prepare young veterans for full-time jobs in wildland firefighting. The program just finished its first full season.

“Instead of them getting the basic skills and then seeking some seasonal employment in wildland fire, they will actually be lined up to find permanent jobs,” said James Gasaway, Field Program Coordinator at SECC.

All of the participants in the VFC are post-9/11 veterans under age 35. The 2019 cohort had five members, joined by two SECC Staff Crew Leaders.

The VFC operated from January to October, beginning with Corpsmembers undergoing basic fire training. During this initial phase, Corpsmembers obtain enough knowledge to receive their Red Card (S130 and S190). A Red Card is a certification that allows a person to participate in wildland firefighting activities on federal lands.

Following this training, the veterans served out of the Villanow Work Center, located within the Conasauga Ranger District of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia.

Corpsmembers gained hands-on experience by participating in different forms of firework throughout the forest. These duties ranged from working on prescribed burns, monitoring land to track its recovering after a controlled burn, or digging fire lines and cutting down trees for fire prevention.

The Corpsmembers are thoroughly trained on how to handle and care for the land in the event of a fire. The program is constructed so that Corpsmembers can temporarily pause their AmeriCorps service and work directly under the Forest Service if they are needed for fire duty.

In addition to earning credentials and learning “hard skills,” Corpsmembers in the VFC also receive training in decision-making, risk management and personnel management.

The appeal of the program is that it helps veterans fast-track their careers. In many other Corps, most members have to go through a number of positions before making the jump into a position with a public land agency such as the Forest Service. That isn’t the case in this program, however. Tyler Welch, a VFC Corpsmember, says the tempo of the program is what makes it most enjoyable.

“We’re not having to sit in an office. Literally 90 percent of the time, we’re out in the woods doing some type of project or burning, or fighting wildfire,” said Tyler.

A majority of the participants joined the VFC in part because of a personal love of the outdoors. Studies suggest spending time outdoors can be particularly beneficial for veterans, but another intangible benefit of the program is simply spending time learning and serving alongside fellow veterans.

“As they’re going through it, it really helps them transition from more of that very direct communication inside the military to more of that general civilian communication,” said James.

The VFC participants come from all branches of the military, some with previous leadership experience and others with none. Most of the participants have a similar interest in conservation but many haven’t done this type of work before. As they join the program, they soon discover a direction for their career. Wildland firefighting gives veterans a chance to transfer skills and discipline learned in the military into a civilian career that, while intense, offers the opportunity to continue to serve our country.

The collaboration from the Southern Region (Region 8) of the U.S. Forest Service, was vital to the success of this program. Forest Service staff assisted in ensuring the veterans received training, supervision, and mentoring. They also provided a space to house all of their tools.

Over their term, the Veterans Fire Corps 2019 class completed prescribed burns on 64,980 acres and each participant received ten certifications. Since the completion of the program, many of the members have continued working around the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. SECC is currently accepting applications for the 2020 VFC season.