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Dickies at Work The Conservation Corps

Aug 17, 2007
As a young lad, I looked around before starting on my career track, thinking before I settled down, this was the time to get my world legs on. Do a stint in the military? It was peacetime (shows how long ago this was?) and doing National Guard just to say you did it seemed kind of a mediocre choice. Join the Peace Corps and do a stint in another country? Maybe, but that seemed like a slightly deeper commitment, and anyway what if I didn't like the politics? I ended up midway between and went for the California Conservation Corps, also known as the CCC.

On the whole, it seemed just right. I was still out in time to start a career, did some work for my country, got to travel all over the state and see practically every acre of forest land it had, and even got to roll on a couple of forest fires. It was half vacation and half job, with the occasional dash of adventure. My second year I buckled down and got some career training started anyway.

The Corps dresses it's members in such a way that they cannot forget they're in a program started during the "New Deal" in a democratic society. All uniforms are Dickies, brown pants with tan shirts, all the way through the ranks, with only colored hats as the sole sign of rank. The ranks by hat colors run blue, green, red, yellow, orange, white, and black. There's only one "honorary" black hat, and a white hat is a center director.

The California Conservation Corps works closely with other state departments such as the California Department of Forestry and Caltrans. If you visit Yosemite and take a trail up a mountain, chances are good that a CCC crew cut that trail. Or if you notice that a dirt hill that was eroding is now sprouting shoots that help retain the landscape, that might have been some CCC handiwork. The CCC also does the biggest part of disaster relief when needed, responding to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and forest fires. If you've heard of "smoke-jumpers" who go into a forest fire by helicopter to fight it, those are also usually recruited from the CCC's ranks.

By itself, the CCC is a good leg up in a career of civil service for the State government. It also offers job training in a variety of fields, and some paid college while attending. It's a good pit stop for the very young adult, wishing to get some adventure in before settling down to the car loans and mortgages of the suburban life.

Which isn't to say it's fantastic. A sizable proportion of those who join are screw-ups, but they sort themselves out after a month. The conditions are rugged, particularly in the back-country projects where you're off in a camp without any contact from the outside world for months at a time. The pay... hey, I said I deliberated between this and the Peace Corps, right? Whatever you do, don't do this job for the money.

The Dickie uniforms. Do it for them. No, but anyway about the uniforms, you sew patches on the sleeves for whatever center or department you're with. That's the other distinguishing feature. You keep these patches around even after you've tossed the uniforms. With your other keepsakes, like the pictures and the work gloves and the T-shirt they sold you at the fire camp.

Fire camp! See, fighting forest fires is largely a matter of depriving them of fuel. So you go around the fire and cut line. If you're lucky and the wind is right, you got the line to go all around the fire and it dies out. If it got away, you have to cut more line around where it is now. If you think a crew of people armed with axes chopping their way through a tall pine forest for a ten mile radius are no match for a fire moving through the trees at the speed of wind, you're right. It's impossible. And every fire ends just that way: we accomplish the impossible and kill the fire.

The planes and helicopters make "air drops", bucket dumps of slurry on the fire to retard the flames. This is a strategic attempt to douse just one area at the perimeter of the fire; the equivalent of attacking a house fire with a thimble full of water in an attempt to hold it back one second until you can close the door. These are called in by radio. Even if we had one hundred of these, they couldn't put out the fire by themselves. Largely they douse an area to keep it from catching.

This would be difficult enough on flat ground. But forest fires often happen on mountainous terrain. Hills and gullies have to be navigated, often where trucks can't go. Fires like to rush up hills and devour the trees there, then creep down into the next valley. Get too far from the fire and you'll never catch up. Get to close and, well, you got to close to a fire. The fire camp goes for days like this, moving and fighting, sixteen hour shifts of exhausting labor in the woods, plopping back unconscious at camp and waking up and the first thing you ask is "Where is it?" You get an answer something like "Three-thirty, heading east, 60% contained." And that's enough to get you running to catch up again. Sixty percent isn't anything. Sixty percent means you're failing.

After the fire's out, there's the cleanup. Going back to retrieve equipment, put out hot spots, and knock down snags. The area freshly burned from the fire might as well be on another planet. No noise, no birds. Hazy gray sunshine through smoke. Black spikes that are all that's left of trees, some still standing. Knee-deep ash everywhere. Hot spots; sometimes when a tree burns, the root stay on fire for a few days afterward, burning away deep in the ground, and these are hot spots. They look like miniature volcanoes in the ash, with a plume of smoke within.

But then you visit town when the fire's over, and make a stop for supplies on the way home. The town, nestled amongst the woods, was saved. The people of the town greet you like heroes, even if your role in the fire fighting wasn't that major. They recognize you, the distinctive brown and tan Dickie uniforms with the ash and smoke streaks on them mark you as one of the crew. Little else distinguishes you after you lift the goggles from your eyes and there's so much ash on your face that the goggles left an impression. The Conservation Corps is democratic, it does not matter who outranks who. There is no rank then, only team.
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Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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