By Mary-Justine Lanyon
“It looked like the apocalypse. It crushed my heart.”
That was Royal Ramey’s reaction to the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. He was on that fire with Cal Fire.
“It was devastating,” Ramey said. He told members of both the Mountain Sunrise and Crestline-Lake Gregory Rotary Clubs that the biggest problem was the lack of fire prevention – the lack of defensible space.
That devastating experience led to an epiphany for Ramey and was the genesis of the nonprofit organization he co-founded – the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program.
From his service on fires with first the Forest Service and then Cal Fire, Ramey was aware of the crews that were being trained at California’s 43 fire camps, part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. One such camp is Pilot Rock, located in Crestline. Inmate crews from Pilot Rock have worked on removing trees infested with and killed by bark beetles across the mountain, from Crestline to Running Springs.
Ramey saw these crews as untapped talent. He knew from personal experience how difficult the application process is to get on with one of the fire services. His thought was: These men are being trained to both fight fires and remove hazardous trees and other flammable materials. Why not further their training and help them use those skills?
The result was the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program, which Ramey founded in 2018 with Brandon Smith. Since then, they and their team have recruited and trained more than 100 people who have gone on to get jobs with one of the fire services, including Cal Fire.
Because Ramey had worked on the mountain with the Forest Service, he knew there was a need up here for weed abatement and hazardous tree removal. He spoke with one of the battalion chiefs, who mentioned the Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council to him.
Laura Dyberg, president of the fire safe council, said the battalion chief was aware of their abatement assistance grant. “He thought we could find some projects for Royal’s crews.”
Since partnering with the fire safe council, FFRP crews have worked on more than 20 properties. “They have saved us and the property owners thousands of dollars,” Dyberg said, “and brought the parcels into compliance with county codes.
“We are really happy to be partnering with such a worthwhile organization in helping make the mountain more fire safe.”
A crew made up of Ramey and three others – DaTon, the module leader; Kevon and Corbin – recently worked on Darlene and Bob’s property in Crestline. Kevon has been with the program since March, while Corbin – who did similar work with the Urban Conservation Corps – joined FFRP a month ago.
After putting on their safety equipment – goggles, helmets, gloves and chaps for those using chain saws – Kevon and Corbin started cutting down the long grass on the hill next to the house. They are both trained on using the string trimmers, Ramey said, so they did not need constant supervision.
Meanwhile, DaTon started using a pole saw to trim limbs hanging over the couple’s deck. He and Ramey also limbed up trees surrounded the house to a height of six feet.
Ramey and DaTon had visited the property prior to the work day so they knew which smaller trees they would be thinning out. “We want 10 feet around large trees,” Ramey said. “Those smaller trees will take water from the bigger trees – they compete for it.”
FFRP, Ramey noted, is not just for the formerly incarcerated. They also reach out to at-risk youth, those interested in forestry and folks with firefighting or forestry degrees. Ramey himself got his AS degree in fire technology at Crafton Hills College. While there, he met a Cal Fire battalion chief who told him about a fire academy up north.
“My whole goal,” Ramey said, “was to be a true firefighter with Cal Fire. Education was key to achieving that goal.”
Part of what the FFRP staff teaches the recruits is the fire culture. Those who have been in the fire camps, Ramey said, are looking for more privileges, to get time cut off their sentences, to see their family more.
“They are not doing it professionally. They are being told exactly what to do. They are not thinking on their own, not making decisions. They are pretty much robots.
“When you’re a professional firefighter, you have to think. It’s a lifestyle. You eat, breathe, live fire. It’s your profession and your lifestyle,” Ramey said.
Being part of a fire service is like being part of a family, he added. “You see the praise, the welcome, the heroism. You have a sense of purpose, of pride. People have your back.”
FFRP teaches those life skills to their recruits. “When you have the uniform on and a civilian comes up and cusses you out, what will you do? Once you’re disrespectful, it’s violating the code of conduct. You have to commit to a lifestyle change.”
To find the recruits, Ramey and other members of the FFRP team visit the fire camps, telling the inmates about the program and encouraging them to apply. Once they are released – and if they are accepted into the program – their pre-apprentice training begins. Some of them, Ramey said, need housing. Others need financial stability, child care, substance abuse classes. “We partner with other organizations that provide these services.”
Ramey and his staff go through the applications, rating them and calling their references. To get selected, a potential recruit has to have a captain from their camp verify they were a good worker. They recently selected the latest group of recruits. They may train 50 but only half will be selected for the apprentice program, because of funding. Those selected will go out in the field next month, doing projects in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. But they don’t abandon those not selected; they can take the wildland certification they earn to the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. “We help them with the application process,” Ramey said.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, many of their classes are being offered virtually now. But then the recruits are taken out into the field for training, which includes some serious hiking.
After the apprenticeship – during which the crews are paid – FFRP helps them apply for fire service jobs. “Our folks get priority in hiring,” Ramey said. “The Forest Service knows who we are. We have strong connections with several of the national forests.
“We have a good success rate if folks complete the program. It’s very physical. Some may not pass the test.”
It’s the recruits in the apprentice program who work under the supervision of Ramey and crew captains like DaTon. “We specialize in brush clearance, weed abatement, tree removal,” Ramey said.
He will go out and look at a project and let the homeowner know what they can do. “We give them a bid. If they agree, we set a date and time.”
He makes sure the homeowner understands they cannot chip the slash and haul it away; they do not yet have a chipper. Ramey tries to coordinate with the Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council to have the chipping done.
The good news for the homeowner, Ramey said, is the FFRP crew can do the work for a fraction of the cost of a for-profit company. Their fee covers the stipends they pay the crew as well as the cost of tools and equipment maintenance. FFRP received substantial grants – about $1.5 million in 2019 – from Google, the state of California, John Legend and Bank of America. Those grant funds cover the nonprofit’s overhead expenses.
Sher Fairbanks, who is the Crestline representative on the Mountain Rim Fire Safe Council board, told Ramey during the Crestline-Lake Gregory Rotary meeting that “you are filling a need up here. A lot of people don’t have the money to put into creating defensible space.”
“We want to help the community – that’s the biggest thing,” Ramey said.
“And if you want to work in the fire service, I’m the guy to help you regardless of your background.”
For more information on the FFRP, visit their website, www.forestryfirerp.org. To talk with Ramey about having weed abatement or tree removal work done on your property, email him at [email protected]