The Pathway to Fighting Wildfires Found with CCC

female in fire gear making hand gestures

Placer Center Corpsmember Cecilia Pierce communicates with hand signals during a training hike and cut in Nevada County.

A year ago, Cecilia Pierce was working as a barista in Madera County. Now, she’s one of hundreds of young adults in the California Conservation Corps getting hands-on experience training as a wildland firefighter.

“I always thought this was way out of reach,” Cecilia, a Placer Center Corpsmember, said. “I always learn something new and then I take it on to the next day. I see how much I’m progressing. I’m proud of my success.”

For the last few weeks, she and her crew have been donning their protective gear, sharpening their hand tools, and hitting the trails of Northern California. These are not easy strolls through the woods, these are workouts intended to prepare Corpsmembers for the demanding months ahead on the fireline.

Placer Corpsmember Serra Davidsson does pull-ups during physical training at the CCC Placer Center in Auburn. 

“I’m not the best hiker, but I’ve seen so much improvement,” Cecilia said. “I know what I have to do and I work on it. We all know we have to improve. I have to keep pushing myself.”

In order to find success, Corpsmembers spend time working together on their physical fitness. They complete intense training circuits focusing on building up the strength and endurance needed to hike and swing hand tools for hours at a time.

“I came in barely being able to do one pull-up,” said Placer Corpsmember Serra Davidson. “Today we did 100 pull-ups. It’s not easy but I get it done.”

CCC Los Piños Corpsmembers use their hand tools to clear debris within five feet of a tree, in order to prepare for a prescribed burn in the Cleveland National Forest. 

For many Corpsmembers, this will be their first time on a wildland fire crew. They joined the CCC without any prior experience and receive hands-on, paid training where they work directly with CAL FIRE captains.

“Thank goodness for like the captains and supervisors, they helped me understand more about the tools,” said Los Piños Corpsmember Kevon Martinez. “I now see how Pulaskis, hoes, and chain saws work to build fireline.”

Though it can be a steep learning curve, Corpsmembers are eager to pick up the language and develop their skills. They’re getting the hands-on field experience and working in the classroom, where they earn firefighting certifications. The combination of experience and credentials can lead Corpsmembers to meaningful careers in the fire service.

“I’m going to the CAL FIRE Santa Cruz Unit,” said Los Piños Corpsmember Victor Palomo. “I was lucky enough to get picked up within a year of joining the CCC.”

However, nothing is more motivating than protecting communities. It makes all the hard work and preparation worth it.

Tahoe Corpsmember Eduardo Hernandez listens intently to his radio while looking at the hand line his crew is cutting during a wildland fire crew readiness drill near Pilot Hill, CA. 

“It’s not that we want California to burn, but that’s what we’ve been training for,” said Tahoe Corpsmember Eduardo Hernandez. “That’s what brings meaning in my life, helping communities, protecting lives, natural resources, and property.”

Across the state, more than 450 Corpsmembers stand ready to respond to any wildfire, big or small. Last year, CCC fire crews were dispatched to 205 wildfire incidents There’s still time for other young adults to join in and help, as 18 to 25-year-olds can enroll in the CCC year-round. Military veterans up to age 29 are also eligible.

“You can do anything that you set your mind to,” Cecilia said. “We are a family. We’re all constantly changing and growing. We’re just trying to help each other. That’s really cool.”