Crook County teens have been helping out at the Bridge 99 Complex Incident Command Center

by: KEVIN SPERL - Brandt McCloughan works the fire hose rolling machine as the rest of the Crook County-based team lays out other used hoses.

While most of the attention is given to firefighters on the front lines of attacking this year's wildfires, there is a group of Crook County youth working hard behind the scenes in support of their efforts.

At the Bridge 99 Complex Incident Command Center, located at the Sisters Middle School, Crook County Middle School teachers Jim Crouch and Linda Pepper serve as crew team bosses to 17 local teenagers, all but one of them from Prineville.

Math teachers during the academic year, the two have transformed themselves into supply and maintenance experts for the past six summer fire seasons, working in support of various command posts.

Pepper explained that the idea for student-staffed summer fire crews came about in 2007, when Prineville was hit hard by the recession.

“We had one of the highest unemployment rates and many summer jobs that high school students typically had were taken over by their parents,” she said.

That's when Grant Kemp, the manager of the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center, came to her with a proposal. It was a win-win situation — creating jobs within the Forest Service while helping out kids in a community where they would otherwise have no work.

“It became an opportunity to experience forest fire management and make some money,” added Pepper.

When they get the call, Crouch and Pepper work down their call list of 40 students, staffing a crew of eight or nine each.

“When we mobilize, the forest service delivers us to wherever they need us within Oregon,” explained Crouch. “For up to two weeks we camp on-site bringing our own tents and sleeping bags. The Forest Service provides us with access to showers, liquids to drink, and food.”

Grayson Munn works with Crouch's team and is honest about why he is here.

“The majority of my reason for being here is to make money for college or to buy a car,” he admitted. “But, it's not the traditional high school job and we earn our money by putting in a lot of hours.”

Many of the team members put in over 100 hours each week, starting around 5 or 6 a.m. and working until 10 at night.

The day might start with them serving coffee to outbound fire crews, then moving on to picking up garbage and sorting recycling, restocking the supply tent, handing out bag lunches, or rolling returned fire hose.

“I've mastered the art of the 15-minute head-on-the-table nap,” laughed Munn.

For Zane Abrams, the variety of the work experience is what appeals to him. “This job prepares you for a lot of things, from janitorial work to camp maintenance, and we need to be flexible,” he said. “But, we manage to have a lot of fun, and during our downtime we definitely sleep.”

The Bridge 99 fires began on July 13, and grew to almost 6,000 acres, including areas around Green Ridge and Bear Butte. These fires impacted the Metolius River area as well as part of the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness, drawing over 800 personnel to fight them.

That number of people creates the need for a small, temporary, town.

Clarence Adams, the camp's supply unit leader, said that when fires start, he scopes out the size of the needed camp based on what will be required and then searches for areas that suit the fire camp's needs.

“Our agencies have reused sites, but sometimes you look for a new site,” he said, adding that phone and computer access and and proximity to the fire are two important criteria.

“The middle school here is a prime location, offering all the technical equipment we need, plus we have access to indoor space,” he said.

Fire Information Officer Robin Vora explained that the forest service has an an ongoing agreement with the school district.

“We can accommodate a large number of people here. We have traditionally been located in the Metolius basin, which is just a field,” he explained. “It was closer to the fires but a more difficult place to camp.”

In addition to providing basic living services for fire fighters, the camp becomes the hub for equipment supplies, including fire hose, fittings, sleeping bags, pumps, oil, and even pens and pencils.

And that's where Crouch's and Pepper's work crews help out.

The crews are there to do whatever it takes, so when fire fighters come back from the line they have access to whatever they need.

And they have certainly made an impression with the fire fighting veterans.

Dale Chamberland is the supply tent's receiving manager, traveling to Sisters from the Forest Service's Missoula, Mont., office.

“I have been to a lot of fires and work with a lot of kids and these guys are enthusiastic and jump when you need them,” she said. “They are one of the better crews I have seen.”

To prove her point, Chamberland points to Mica Allen, a member of Crouch's team that has been assigned to her.

“Mica sees something to do and does it. She has taking a lot of responsibility on this fire, signing for things and carrying her own radio,” she said.

And, these kids wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is Jacob Cothermen's first work camp and he said he would rather be here than working at home.

“We get paid well and work hard,” he said, adding that he hopes to be a volunteer firefighter some day. “I have met a lot of new friends and, when on break, we have really good card games.”

Curtis Crouch is a veteran of the work crews, having been at five fires in the past three years.

“At typical jobs it is all about production and making a profit,” he said. “Here it is about safety and service to the workers. They really care if you are doing all right and getting enough sleep, rest time and food.”

For Crouch and Pepper, they enjoy the opportunity to extend additional learning opportunities to Prineville students. They are, after all, teachers.

“We take kids out here and away from their cell phones. They work together and play together. It is a very personable time in an age when we don’t see that much anymore,” said Crouch. “They are also learning about work ethics and chain of command and how others live.”

Pepper added that the work experience creates a sense of community amongst a diverse set of students that might not otherwise interact.

“These are students from the same community and high school and maybe know of each other, but never get together, “ she said. “Here, a lot of barriers are broken down. We have seen different types of kids, from the athlete to the computer kid, working together and sharing a meal.”

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