Job Corps Students Support Hayden Pass Firefighters

Jul 29, 2016

While crews are out mopping up hot spots and reinforcing the Hayden Pass Fire perimeter in Fremont and Custer counties, there's a diverse group of young people working behind the scenes to keep the base camp running.

A temporary city popped up when the Hayden Pass Fire base camp moved to Westcliffe last week. Big tan supply tents, eighteen-wheelers carrying kitchen and shower facilities and a slew of smaller blue and silver tents appeared in a dusty field at the Custer County Fairgrounds.

Deavontay Small Bear of Mission, South Dakota is among the Job Corps students working to support the Hayden Pass Fire base camp.
Credit Erik Simonyak / Boxelder Job Corps

It's part of the Boxelder Job Corps Center's assignment to work at the camp.  The group has more than a dozen students "trying to make everything comfortable for the firefighters, keep everything clean, maintain the camp, help out the mobile kitchen as much as possible," says eighteen year-old Deavontay Small Bear of Mission South Dakota.

Job Corps is a joint U. S. Forest Service and Department of Labor no-cost program for underserved 16 - 24 year olds. Students live at the Job Corps center and have up to two years to finish their high school education and vocational training.

Erik Simonyak, an instructor from the South Dakota center, says some of this handpicked group of current students once lived in African and Asian refugee camps, while others come from around the U.S.

"Some of these guys have been out on six or seven fires between this year and last year," says Simonyak. "I know I can walk away and they'll get the job done."

And there's plenty to do. They're cooking, working in the office, handling supplies and all kinds of other jobs necessary to keep the crews ready and able to head out to the fire line each day.

Mugisha Byringio is originally from Congo, but says he grew up in Rwanda.  "I like this job, it's good job you know," he says. "I like to support [the] firefighter[s] 'cause you know, like firefighter they come to help you."

19-year-old Nasim Ahmen Abakar is originally from Sudan, but has also been a refugee in Kenya.  "I'm working in supplies," she says.  "It's kind of like, the firefighters, they need some stuff.  We got glasses, gloves, safety stuff… So whenever they come and ask for them, we just record their names down, then we give it to them."

Nasim Abakar, a 19-year-old student originally from Sudan, works in the supply tent at the Hayden Pass Fire base camp.
Credit Erik Simonyak / Boxelder Job Corps

Abakar says she and one of her brothers left their family behind in the Kenyan refugee camp when they came to America seven months ago with the help of an aid group.

"It's my goal to help my family, my friends my grandparents who are really in need.  I just need to help them," she says, and adds she's making plans to get the rest of her family here.

19-year-old Yonas Amine takes a break while working in the Hayden Pass Fire base camp.
Credit Erick Simonyak / Boxelder Job Corps

Yonas Amina is 19, Eritrean, and lived in Ethiopia before he and his family moved to the US.

"I love camp crew," he says. "Even I want to join fire crew. I want to learn everything. You go everyplace, everywhere, so that's kinda cool. And you save your money and go to college and if you are working hard, it's feeling very nice."

Some the Job Corps students work in the big mobile kitchen. They prepare three meals a day including hundreds of box lunches for the entire fire crew. Think of a lunch truck on steroids—the mobile kitchen takes up the whole inside of a semi-tractor trailer.

Whether they're making breakfast burritos or barbeque ribs for dinner, culinary student Samantha Oliver of Whitewood, South Dakota is proud to have earned both a monogrammed white chef's coat and a bright yellow fire crew tee shirt.

Job Corps student Samantha Oliver and instructor Chuck Steinberg help prepare meals for firefighters working the Hayden Pass Fire.
Credit Rita Baynsinger

"We have to be here and ready to go with a smile on our face at 3:00 in the morning!" she says.  "My instructor Chuck and my math teacher Ms Raye, who's doing camp crew, they're just joking around and it brightens my day and I feel like I'm around good people."Oliver says she wants to take her Job Corps culinary training and open a pastry business.

Work is winding down on Hayden Pass Fire, so soon the Boxelder Job Corps students will head back to South Dakota or out to the next base camp that needs them.