Ganging up on California wildfires

Ganging up on California wildfires

27 November 2008

published by

USA — As the warm day winds down for lunch, Ramon Maestas, sweating and covered in soot after a morning of work, turns his attention to a man rumbling toward him in a Subaru Outback. He has long hair and a bumper sticker that declares: “Love Mother Earth.”

“Hey, man,” the stranger calls out in a warm voice to Maestas, 23. “Thanks for helping us with the fires. You guys OK? You need anything? You need a ride anywhere?”

“Nah,” Maestas says, squinting in disbelief as if the offer were a prank. “We’re OK.”

The man drives off, kicking up a trail of dust along the back road, and Maestas cracks a wide grin.

“That would never go down in L.A.,” he says. “There, they see me and all I hear is click, click, click when they lock their doors.”

A year after joining a seasonal fire crew that helps gang members start anew, Maestas is still thunderstruck by his dual personas. Back in his Echo Park neighborhood he is Little Ray, the menacing gangster. But in the thick of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, he’s Ramon Maestas, the heroic firefighter.

Little Ray frightens people when he struts down Echo Park Avenue, white socks hiked to his knees, bald head marked with a tattoo of a woman’s red lips, all attitude.

Ramon Maestas, the firefighter, makes people feel safe. He wins strangers over in his dusty green and yellow uniform; they give him free food and say, “Thank you for saving our homes.”

When scores of residents flee in fear of wildfire, Maestas charges toward the blaze, hopeful that in time, the flames will cleanse him of his turbulent past.

The other side

There are moments amid the ash and smoke – when a stranger opens a door for him or townspeople hang a banner in gratitude – when he can see the other side, when he can picture a new life as a full-time firefighter.

Someday, maybe, his work, not his gang name, will earn him the respect of others.

“I’ve never had people treat me like that before,” Maestas says. “It’s beautiful.”

In the summer of 2007, Maestas stood in handcuffs before a judge on a gun charge. His record had trailed him since he was 15, when the scrawny, self-described “knucklehead” was first locked up for taking a high-speed joy ride in a stolen car. He bounced in and out of jail for eight years for grand theft auto, tagging up walls and carrying a gun.

Today, because he is on probation, one more mistake could cost him at least five years in prison.

“If I spit the wrong way, I’m done,” Maestas says.

‘A straight square’

Growing up, he never stopped to think of the future. His father died of a drug overdose before he reached junior high. His mother faded in and out of his life. Uncles and aunts – some are members of the Echo Park gang – urged him to avoid the streets. So did his grandparents, who raised him.

But Maestas grew mulishly proud of his neighborhood gang, and if anyone insulted it, the kid would respond with his fists.

About a year ago, Maestas’ fast life began to thrust him toward the fire line. He was locked up on the gun conviction, and his absence was taking a toll on his grandmother. The 66-year-old woman who had stood by him all his life, scouring Echo Park streets for him in the middle of the night when sirens blared, became ill.

Maestas was terrified. A few years earlier, when he was jailed for a probation violation, his grandfather fell sick and died. Maestas missed his funeral. He could not bear the thought that he might lose his grandmother and not be home to say goodbye.

“I felt bad for hurting my grandma,” Maestas says. “I thought, ‘I gotta do something right. I gotta start something. I gotta get me a career and be a straight square.’ ”

When he got out of jail, a cousin told him about Aztecs Rising, a gang-intervention program that trains youths to become forest firefighters. The thought of wiping out fires and pushing himself to compete excited him.

He strolled into the program’s office with two homeboys, Executive Director Enrique Hurtado said. Maestas had a criminal record but was clear of violent felonies that would have disqualified him. If he worked hard enough, he could follow the example of other participants and qualify for a permanent job with the U.S. Forest Service.

Tempers tested

Nearly 2,000 young men and women have graduated from the program since Hurtado launched it in 1994, most of them moving into steady jobs.

A former gang member himself, Hurtado cleaned up after getting hired by the Forest Service.

He returned to Los Angeles after fighting fires nationwide, motivated to persuade other gang members to follow his lead. In no time, he had 50 men – some from opposing neighborhoods – jogging single-file at local parks. In 2000, the city began funding the program, which is now struggling to stay afloat.

Participants enter a paramilitary lifestyle designed to channel their loyalty for the gang to the fire crew, and they undergo six months of intense fitness training. They also learn about fire physics, wind patterns, fuels and topography. Their tempers are tested as crew leaders yell and push them to the limit.

“The homeboys will always be there,” Hurtado tells them. “But the gang lifestyle is just going to take you to the cemetery, to prison or to the hospital.”

A few weeks into training, Maestas and two friends are reprimanded for throwing Echo Park gang signs. Soon after, his friends cheat on a written exam and are kicked out.

But Maestas returns, determined not to fall off track and immediately begins to outshine his peers.

“With more assignments,” Hurtado says, Maestas “could easily land a position with the Forest Service.” Ultimately, he adds, “it’s up to him.”

After joining Front Country Crew 6 on three fires, Maestas is promoted to squad leader. He makes his crew members crack up with his childlike laughter and goofy facial expressions, then dares them to push harder.

The program, Maestas says, “is all I have left. That’s why everyone sees me get so pumped up.”

Calculated choices

Maestas arrives at his grandmother’s green stucco home on a hot Saturday night. The weeks that follow test him – as much as any forest fire.

Along these muggy, busy streets, Maestas the firefighter disappears. Instead, Maestas the ex-convict is back home.

He has a 9 p.m. curfew and cannot travel outside Los Angeles County. If he is caught talking to any other gang member, he’ll be back in handcuffs.

He spends most of his time inside. Once in a while, he joins the fire crew on afternoon hikes to stay in shape. He also makes calculated choices: He risks being seen with gangster cousins and joins his family to celebrate an uncle’s 50th birthday.

Otherwise, Maestas stays close to home, waiting for the phone to ring. But it doesn’t.

November arrives, and Maestas begins to think about looking for other work. As he begins to doubt his future as a firefighter, the fires return.

The call comes on a Friday night. Maestas and Crew 6 are to report to headquarters the next morning.

He rushes around the house excitedly, packing.

“It’s like Christmas morning,” he says.

And another chance at redemption.

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