Veterans train for fire season

Posted at: 04/12/2013 5:44 PM
Updated at: 04/12/2013 6:28 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Hold the M-16s and the hand grenades. The new weapons are Pulaski axes and McLeod rakes, and the enemy is fire. 40 New Mexico military veterans will soon be fighting wildfires instead of terrorists in a program for unemployed vets that may be the first of its kind in the nation.

KOB Eyewitness News 4 caught up with about half of the new fire recruits Friday afternoon for a training session in the riverside forest along the banks of the Rio Grande just north of Bernalillo. The recruits were digging a fire line, hauling out firehoses, and learning the protocols of firefighting in the woods.

“It’s similar training to what we’ve already had,” said Dametre Macon, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. “We’re marching through the woods, watching each other’s back, keeping a lookout. All those things are things that we’ve been trained for and we’ve all done before.”

Macon said she had a terrible time looking for civilian work after her time in the Army.

Othello Porter served with the Marines and the Army – three tours in Iraq.

“I’m getting back to it,” Porter said. “I’m getting used to getting up early in the morning again. Now I’m going to get into a regimen of working out, pretty much the same, eating cheeseburgers!”

Porter said he had a job in casino security after he got back from his last tour in Iraq, but it was “boring.”

Recruit Jonathan Rose-Zlotnik said he's a man with a plan.

“I’m still currently serving in the United States Army Reserves,” Rose-Zlotkin said. “I decided to join the forestry program because I need money for school and, yeah, I wanted the experience.”

Gov. Susana Martinez visited with the recruits, promising them they’ll get that experience soon enough. All of the forecasters and foresters agree that New Mexico is most likely  in for another long and destructive fire season in this third straight springtime of severe drought.

The recruits got a lesson in Fire Shelter 101 – shaking out the thin sack-like shelters they carry on their packs and climbing into them. There may not be anybody shooting at them, but wildfires still mean danger and sometimes even death.

Discipline and team work and coordinated effort are second nature to these fire recruits. It’s the other skills they have to learn: Techniques and tools, and rules of wildfire survival. Instructors say they’re extremely fast learners. This is a pilot program, and state foresters expect it to succeed and grow.