Fighting fires ignites a passion in former L.A. gang member

Fighting fires ignites a passion in former L.A. gang member

29 November 2008

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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.

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

“Nah,” says Maestas, 23, squinting in disbelief as if the offer were a prank. “We’re OK.”

The man drives off, and Maestas grins.

“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 rap sheet at 15

A year after joining a seasonal fire crew that helps gang members start anew, Maestas remains thunderstruck by his dual personas. In his Echo Park neighborhood he is Little Ray, the menacing gangster. In the thick of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, he’s Ramon Maestas, 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 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 the flames will cleanse him of his turbulent past. 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 respect.

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

In summer 2007, Maestas stood in handcuffs before a judge on a gun charge. Maestas’ record had trailed him since he was 15, when the 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 walls and carrying a gun.

These days, 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,” he said.

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 urged him to avoid the streets. So did his grandparents, who reared him.

But Maestas grew mulishly proud of his neighborhood gang. If anyone insulted it, he would respond with his fists.

Getting straightened out

About a year ago, his 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 became ill.

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

When he was released from jail, a cousin told him about Aztecs Rising, a gang-intervention program that trains young people 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 friends, 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 qualify for a permanent job with the U.S. Forest Service.

Nearly 2,000 young men and women have graduated from the program since Hurtado started 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 jogging single-file at local parks. In 2000, the city began funding the program, which is 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 were reprimanded for throwing Echo Park gang signs. Soon after, his friends cheated on an exam and were kicked out.

But Maestas returned and began to outshine his peers.

“With more assignments,” Hurtado said, Maestas “could easily land a position with the Forest Service.”

Back into the blaze

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

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

On Aug. 28, Crew 6’s assignment in the Shasta-Trinity forest ended and members were free to return to Los Angeles.

Maestas woke up the next morning in a rowdy mood. He yelled “Dog pile!” and threw himself on top of a sleepy crew member, rolled his blanket and began to pack. The crew’s mission had gone well.

Maestas arrived at his grandmother’s green stucco home on a hot Saturday night. The weeks that followed tested him as much as any forest fire.

Maestas the firefighter disappeared. Maestas the ex-convict has a 9 p.m. curfew and cannot travel outside Los Angeles County. If he is caught talking to another gang member, he’ll be back in handcuffs.

He spends most of his time inside.

November arrived, and Maestas began to think about looking for other work. As he began to doubt his future as a firefighter, the fires returned.

The call came on a Friday night. Maestas and Crew 6 were to report to headquarters the next morning. He rushed around the house, packing.

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

And another chance at redemption.

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