Firefighters, Rehabilitation

Ventura Training Center cadets return from 2 months on fire line

Michael Gebre fights a fire.
CAL FIRE firefighter and VTC graduate Michael Gebre also spent 60 days on the fire line, deployed to blazes in Monterey, Fresno, and Sonoma Counties.

As wildfires continue to sweep through California, current and past Ventura Training Center (VTC) cadets are doing their part to keep communities safe.

On Oct. 14, crews 1 and 2 demobilized after 60 straight days responding to the River, LNU Lighting Complex, El Dorado, and Creek fires. To welcome them back, staff and cadets at VTC shined up the fire engines, hung banners, and lined the entrance, cheering them as they returned for some much-needed rest.

“It was a very humbling experience,” said cadet Emmanuel Velazquez. “It felt good to give back – a lot of people were on the verge of losing their homes.”

“They are very hard workers,” said Fire Captain Enrique Ornelas. “They’re willing to listen and learn – it’s a great group of guys.”

Firefighter Michael Gebre holds a turtle he rescued.
VTC graduate and CAL FIRE firefighter Michael Gebre doesn’t just save houses during fires – he helps out wildlife as well.

Unique firefighting program offers training opportunities

VTC is the first-of-its-kind firefighter training program, in which formerly incarcerated firefighters complete advanced firefighter training from CAL FIRE experts.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has parole agents on-site to supervise and mentor the cadets, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) provides life skills training and resources, These include education and employment assistance, and community service referrals.

At the same time, up to 20 California Conservation Corps (CCC) Corps members participate in select training and certification opportunities, and all cadets have access to high school courses and tutors through CCC’s existing contract with John Muir Charter Schools.

Cadets are paid throughout the program, and also gain experience working as a fire crew for wildland fire suppression, responding to emergencies, and performing fire prevention and resource management work.”

“I earned a lot of experience, and learned a lot of things,” said Kylan Lewis of his deployment as he enjoyed an ice cream sundae back at VTC. “I learned better teamwork skills and cooperation. Being out for so long, everybody can start getting moody, but we put all that to the side.”

Program participants give others hope

While fighting the 337,655-acre Creek Fire, Velazquez ran into his old team – the staff and incarcerated firefighters of Mt. Bullion Conservation Camp in Mariposa. During a moment of downtime, he was able to talk to the firefighters about his VTC experience.

“He gave them a huge dose of hope, a huge dose of motivation and encouragement,” shared ARC Life Coach Jon Cesario.

But it’s not just current VTC cadets who are out there on the fire lines. Several VTC graduates have gone on to work in the fire service, including with the very agency that trained them at VTC.

Ronald Robles heard about VTC at just the right time – he was getting ready to parole, and had enjoyed his time on the fire line. While contemplating the options available to him, he learned about VTC, which was preparing to open in October 2018 at the site of the former Ventura Conservation Camp in Camarillo.

“That ladder is up there – the reputation is top-notch,” Robles said, referring to CAL FIRE. So top-notch that even applying for VTC was an intimidating experience, but he was ready. “I had a big mountain to climb, but I had the mentality that regardless of what happens, if I put my best foot forward, if I get into VTC and I show up, it could carry me through to my journey. And I stick with that mentality.”

That mentality worked. After successfully completing VTC and discharging from parole, Robles now works for CAL FIRE. He still makes time for VTC, returning to the center to share his experience with new cadets. He credits his fellow cadets, VTC staff, and all who supported him during incarceration for his success.

CAL FIRE firefighter Michael Gebre gets some rest.
CAL FIRE firefighter and VTC graduate Michael Gebre also spent 60 days on the fire line, deployed to blazes in Monterey, Fresno, and Sonoma Counties.

Graduate earns job with CAL FIRE

“They saw something in me that I can’t quite figure out myself,” he said. “They assured me that if you just show up and are willing, you will see. And I went to them and I said ‘OK, I’ll show up, and I’ll be willing.’ And that’s when the transformation came.”

Michael Gebre, another VTC graduate, has also spent the fire season deployed as a CAL FIRE firefighter. He said that while VTC was rigorous, it was also nurturing, and he appreciated the efforts of all the state agencies and ARC working together for the good of the cadets.

Like Robles, he also credits the conservation camp program for the skills and support built during incarceration.

“It showed me that I had some work ethic in me,” he said. “I had a strong work ethic that I just needed to tap into. Fire camp will definitely show you how to tap into your reserve.”

Like Gebre, Robles credits the support of all at VTC and fire camp for building skills, teamwork, and work ethic.

“Anything that you do in life, if you don’t build a solid foundation, everything will just crumble,” Robles said. “At VTC they have that foundation. You just have to go get it.”