2012 Project of the Year: San Diego Fire Fuel Reduction Program


Winner: Urban Corps of San Diego

When constructing work/learn service projects, youth conservation corps must assess a community’s needs. In San Diego, wildfires pose a constant threat.

In the spring of 2011, Urban Corps of San Diego County’s “Fire Fuel Reduction” program, or FFR, helped clear a path to a better future for more than 300 Corpsmembers. They received paid on-the-job training in the area of fire fuel reduction, while helping create 250 acres of fire defensible space in San Diego County. In the process, many young people developed an interest in pursuing a career in fire fighting, an added benefit for the San Diego Workforce Partnership, who came to Urban Corps last October with a budget of $1.1 million in ARRA and Workforce Investment Act dollars for youth employment through fire prevention and mitigation services.

It was Urban Corps that called upon its community partners and quickly leveraged the project to over $1.7 million, substantially increasing the FFR program’s scope, impact and ability to serve youth and community. FFR proved exceptional in many ways.

From the beginning, the program represented a departure from Urban Corps’ typical Corpsmember enrollment procedure and numbers. Prior to FFR, enrollment was at approximately 140 youth. FFR allowed the organization to provide a three-tiered program to 318 young adults ages 18-25 for 12 weeks. Urban Corps rapidly mobilized and coordinated a massive recruitment effort. To qualify for the program, applicants had to meet low-income guidelines and have at least one barrier to employment such as a disability, limited English proficiency, a court record, or history in the foster care system. More than 100 were hired by the end of March.

The participants were scheduled to receive an intensive training followed by work in the field for four days per week and attendance at Urban Corps’ onsite charter high school the remaining one day per week to receive academic instruction, class credit, and a rigorous work readiness education through the Corps-to-Career Department. As a result, the FFR program created unprecedentedly large high school enrollment at Urban Corps Charter School, expanding the number of youth served by 100%.

Another exciting aspect of the FFR program was the additional impact brought in by Urban Corps’ leveraged partnerships. In an unprecedented move, the organization was able to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and the Viejas Fire Department, a fantastic opportunity for Corpsmembers to receive training and gain on-the-job experience alongside professionals. Additional sponsors were Sweetwater Authority and the City of Chula Vista, both in need of fire mitigation services. Most notably, Viejas Fire Dept. brought an in-kind match of certified training for the participants, greatly enhancing the overall value of the program for Corpsmembers.

Before being sent out in the field, participants attended an intensive orientation training on fire fuel reduction methods and leadership, including safe hand tool and chain saw usage. The professional certification training included 4 courses attended by FFR participants and staff and led by Viejas personnel. Course material covered the primary factors affecting the start and spread of wildfires, recognition of potentially hazardous situations, entry level firefighter skills, and an introduction to the function, maintenance and use of chain saws and their wildland fire application. The training resulted in 65% of the FFR participants earning Chainsaw Operation Certification and LS-180 leadership training, leaving them qualified to join a fire hand crew.

In the field, Corpsmembers gained valuable job skills while removing vegetation and assisting with controlled burns. The youth experienced first-hand what fire fighters do in the off-season to prevent wildfires. They learned about firebreaks, shelters, and native plants. At Bell Middle School in San Diego, FFR crews helped create a safe passage to school for students by clearing a well traversed canyon path. The project was highly publicized and brought considerable attention to the FFR program and its partners. In total, crews produced more than 10.8 million square feet of defensible space, leaving San Diego County a much safer place to live for its 3 million residents.

An unexpected benefit of the FFR program has been a significant increase in the Urban Corps’ capacity to serve its target population, specifically through its ability to obtain similar service projects. The success of this program has paved the way for potential funding for future fire fuel reduction partnerships. So many benefitted through FFR, most of all the young people, that the Corps expects this program to be duplicated year after year. Plus, with enrollment more than doubling, Urban Corps experienced a challenge and a reward that taught them that they were capable of serving more young people and that they can and must create additional opportunities for youth. As such, they shifted their charter school focus this past summer and adopted a new calendar with more learning days. Starting this fall, a week-on/week/off education schedule is enabling the Corps to train and educate 30% more youth.

2005 Corpsmember of the Year: Patricia Bohnwagner

***Update! Click here to find out what Patricia has been up to since winning her award.***

After graduating from high school, Patricia Bohnwagner was working in a fast food restaurant in Massachusetts when she decided to move to San Diego and live with her sister.  She joined Urban Corps of San Diego when the worry of becoming homeless was all too near.  After being accepted and working her way through the Corps Environmental Projects Department and Urban Forestry Department, Patricia was moved to the Graffiti Department and was quickly promoted to crew leader where she increased production by 20 percent.  She asked for, and was granted, an extension to her one year term and was transferred to the Recycling Department where she led the Corpsmember Marketing Crew.  In January she was promoted to a staff position where she continues to lead the Marketing Crew in her role as supervisor.  Patricia also continues taking classes to become certified as an EMT. 

-- “If it wasn’t for the Urban Corps I would NEVER have gone back to school.  They helped me understand the importance of education, they gave me job training and they gave me the chance to become a leader.  I don’t like to think where my life would be if I hadn’t joined the Corps.”

(written in 2005)

2010 Corpsmember of the Year: William Brandt

Once a wildly undisciplined youth, William Brandt’s lack of direction was aggravated by substance abuse and a defensive, angry attitude.  He got into trouble with the law.

But when he heard about the Urban Corps of San Diego—and the opportunity to get paid, get trained, and earn a diploma, all at the same time—his goals came quickly into focus.  The Corps staff treated him as a young professional, and William rose to the challenge. 

Today William is a self-possessed young man who represents the Corps in outreach events, is currently studying at the community college, with the aim of getting his associates’ degree in drug and alcohol counseling with an emphasis on social work. 

At the same time, he will be serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA in the Restoring Youth and Communities program in San Diego, which works within parole and corrections offices, counseling and mentoring youth in the justice system.