Joining the fight

Published 10:00 pm Monday, August 22, 2011

The Phoenix 3 AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps Team cools down a stump at the Lateral West Fire in the Great Dismal Swamp.

By Catherine J. Hibbard
Special to the News-Herald

In March, they were in the classroom learning about wildland fire for the first time. Now, they’re helping fight a 6,000-acre blaze.

That’s the experience several AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps members stationed at Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge are getting this summer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored basic wildland firefighter training for 40 volunteers enrolled in the Perry Point, Md., campus of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps.

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AmeriCorps is a 10-month, team-based residential program for people ages 18-24. The mission is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct, team-based national and community service.

Ben Riley, from Chicago, was one of the trainees.

“I heard wildland fire was one of the options at AmeriCorps,” said Riley, 24. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I was drawn to the idea. I like working seasonally, traveling and the outdoors.”

After completing his training and passing a fitness test where he had to walk three miles carrying a 45-pound pack in under 45 minutes, Riley was assigned to the third AmeriCorps wildland fire team hosted at Great Dismal Swamp this year.

That team, appropriately named “Phoenix 3” helped snuff out a small wildfire in North Carolina.

Then the massive Lateral West fire started on Aug. 4, and Phoenix 3 was among the first responders. They worked with firefighter Jordan Black from nearby Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Black, an alumnus of the AmeriCorps program, was amazed by the team’s enthusiasm.

“We were in the thickest smoke I’ve ever been in my life and they thought it was the coolest thing in the world. ‘We’re in the middle of the fire,’ they said.”

The team’s supervisors say it’s a great opportunity for young people to serve their country short-term while gaining valuable career experience.

“AmeriCorps is a great opportunity to expose young adults to wildland fire and the role fire plays to restore ecosystems,” said Steve Hubner, who oversees the refuge’s AmeriCorps program at the refuge. Hubner, a forester in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Fire Program, likes the real-world experience of Phoenix 3 at the Lateral West Fire.

“They’re not treated with kid gloves. They are firefighters just like anybody else out there.”

Hubner’s hope is that some Phoenix 3 members will, like Jordan Black, decide to make firefighting a career and come back to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the meantime, he’s enjoying seeing the young people he instructed in the classroom put their skills to work.

“It’s nice to see the complete cycle,” he said.