ALBANY — Despite an enormous blaze and plumes of smoke coming from the grounds of Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility recently, there was no cause for alarm: The flames were part of a firefighter training exercise.
Twenty-three youth at Oak Creek and the neighboring Young Women’s Transition Program earned their certification in late March to fight wildfires after taking the 40-hour combined wildland firefighter training and introduction to wildland fire behavior courses.
Instructors Brett Dunten and Sam Black traveled to the Albany facilities from OYA’s Camp Riverbend Youth Transitional Facility in La Grande to teach the weeklong course. At Riverbend, they run the wildland firefighting program, sending youth out to fight wildfires, providing a career opportunity to young men as they transition out of OYA’s care.
The goal of bringing the course to OYA’s female facilities is that when wildfire season starts near La Grande, the certified female youth who are able to leave the facility could potentially join the Riverbend firefighters on crews battling the fires.
“We would love to get a group of girls and bring them over during our fire season,” Black said. “You can only retain so much from a week of training, but by going out there, that will tell them, ‘Is this what I want to do?’”
Dunten said five or six Oak Creek and YWTP youth have already expressed interest in pursuing a firefighting career. He’s trying to connect them with fire agencies in their home counties so they can explore that opportunity when they get out on parole.
In fact, one youth, Sierra M., already has an employment application submitted to a Portland-based fire suppression contractor.
“To be in corrections, especially because it felt I wasn’t doing anything for society, I thought this is a perfect opportunity to give back and do something that matters and help save the planet,” Sierra said. “I’m a natural-born leader and I’m a fast learner. It’s a skill if you can keep everyone safe.”
Sierra admitted she had entered the course to beef up her resume, but the more it tested her physically and mentally, the more she became interested in pursuing a firefighting career.
“Learning from my past, I’ve done risky behaviors,” she said. “But now I take that adrenaline and do good things and put energy toward something better.”
Kirsten T. also expressed interest in pursuing a job in wildland firefighting.
“I think this could be a career for me,” she said. “I thought I would be a nurse, but I also am outdoorsy. I’ve always wanted to be out in the woods. It’s my life, to be around this, to do hard work and protect people.”
Just having an option for when she leaves OYA custody makes it appealing, Kirsten added.
“We are tempted when we get out, so it’s good to have something we can pursue career-wise,” she said. “Wildland firefighters, they don’t care about our charges.”
While the majority of the course was classroom instruction, toward the end of the week, the youth had a chance to contain and fight a fire right on the Oak Creek property. Whether they were digging trenches, calling out instructions to team members, or mopping up after the fire, the youth learned and practiced work ethic, teamwork, respect, and responsibility.
The burning and containment exercise was followed by a test on Friday, with both a written and physical portion, the latter of which requires firefighters to walk three miles in 45 minutes while carrying 45 pounds of equipment.
“You might be qualified to pass the test, but you need that (the physical requirement) to get a job,” Dunten said.
The certification and field experience have helped youth transfer out of OYA care at Riverbend into careers with the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forestry Service.
“We don’t believe in treating them like inmates; we treat them like humans,” Dunten said. “These youth are so respected by the public and the agencies they work with. They’re on top of it.”
Dunten, who himself is a certified firefighter, started the program at Camp Riverbend in 2011, citing the overall shortage of firefighters and the need for career opportunities for the youth. Black, who had been supervising Riverbend work crews that clean up state parks, joined him a few years later as the program expanded.
“What made me want to do this is every kid I brought on my work crew talked about (fire crew),” Black said. “I could see the pride in their faces, how it made them feel good about themselves. They might be dead tired, but they were proud of what they did that day. To help them be someone other than what they are now and to get a job when they get out of the gates, that’s what got me into this.”
Black said they’re excited to provide the same opportunity for OYA’s female youth.
“Boys have so many opportunities out there to find something and start a life and the girls just don’t have as many,” Black said. “This is why we want to open this door to them. I just want them to find passion for life, a job that you can support yourself and your family. That is what firefighting does. It’s a great job for the nature of these youth (their history) because it’s not about what you did but what you’re going to do.”
And though quite a few things still need to be ironed out to get a female work crew to help this coming fire season, Black said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Sierra pointed out that women could bring a lot to the program.
“There’s a real need for women in the field,” she said. “We have an eye for detail and are perfectionists. We can do at least as good as men.”
She also reiterated the importance of having this kind of opportunity available to OYA youth.
“Brett and Sam are amazing instructors,” Sierra said. “This is what we need for youth to get back on their feet. We need to emphasize how much they do for us.”