Firefighting kindles desire to succeed

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Note: IMESD runs the educational programs at the Oregon Youth Authority's RiverBend facility near La Grande, and this article from the East Oregonian features RiverBend's firefighting program.

Just as fire burns away slash in the forest, it can also turn a young man’s reckless past into ash.

Minimum security inmates at Oregon Youth Authority’s RiverBend facility near La Grande are getting a chance to reinvent themselves as wildland firefighters. The correctional outpost houses young offenders as they transition from incarceration to home.

Shalon Freeman’s story is a common refrain at RiverBend. Freeman said he took a wrong turn at age 16.

“I was young and mad at the world when I went to jail for robbery and assault,” recalls Freeman, now 21. “I wasn’t thinking about tomorrow or the consequences of my actions.”

He said the fire program is helping him find motivation to change and succeed. As they swing pulaskis and extinguish flame with hoses and bladder bags, the men learn to see the good in themselves.

This week, Freeman and 17 other RiverBend firefighters gathered in the parking lot for a hike to some nearby private land. They would spend the day burning slash piles.

Crew boss Brett Dunten called each of their names in a role call, then the men hefted drip torches, bladder bags, backpacks and an array of fire tools, lined up military-style and headed to the woods. Four miles later, they gathered around Dunten for instructions, eyeing the 50-plus slash piles dotting the terrain.

Dunten lined them out, pointing out a couple different escape routes in case things went awry.

“We’ll try and get most of them ignited in the next hour and a half,” he instructed, watching closely as the young men broke into small groups and fanned out. Soon, flames leaped from the slash piles and smoke snaked through the trees.

Dunten said the men must apply for the firefighter positions and go through an interview process. After they are accepted into the program, “They have to abide by the rules or they are fired from the program.” Dunten, an employee of the Intermountain Education Service District, gives crew members 90 hours of fire training.

The fire crew, which started in 2012, contracts with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Crew members, who earn a minimal amount each day when they fight fire, got plenty of local action this summer going to small, sometimes lively blazes. The RiverBend crew travels in a bus donated by the Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Pendleton.

Firefighter Dayne Martin, a 24-year-old Medford man, said firefighting has given him a glimpse of a responsible life after incarceration and kindled a desire to work as a firefighter after his release.

“I’ve come a very long way — leaps and bounds,” he said.

Martin explained that when the men head off to a fire, they shake off their prisoner façade.

“Mr. Dunten tells us repeatedly that we are not criminals. We are not what we did. We are firefighters,” Martin said.

Dunten said he started the mantra after hearing a story of a woman who made peanut butter sandwiches for a prisoner crew after they saved her house.

“Does she know we’re criminals?” one firefighter asked his crew boss.

“No,” the crew boss answered. “She knows you are firefighters. She knows you saved her house.”

In June, the crew held a memorial service for 19 fallen firefighters who died battling a blaze in Arizona. The RiverBend firefighters placed ribbons with initials of each of the Granite Mountain hotshots on a flagpole at RiverBend’s entrance. Konner Lewis, 19, said the mood was somber.

“It was pretty cool to recognize firefighters who had lost their lives,” Lewis said. “It was pretty emotional for some of us.”

The tragedy made Dayne Martin realize firefighting comes with risk.

“You’re in the moment and it doesn’t really hit home until an event like that occurs,” he said. “Then it’s like, wow, that could’ve been me.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 25, 2013, edition of the East Oregonian, and was written by Kathy Aney, with photos by Kathy Aney. It has been posted to this web site with permission from the East Oregonian.