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'You can improve your life:' The faces behind the Northern Utah firefighting program threatened by a federal budget ax

SOUTH WEBER — The physical demands of wildlands firefighting are old hat now to Jaimme Noonchester.

“I’ve got a bunch of new guys stressed out about the pack test,” Noonchester said in a phone interview from the Umatilla National Forest in Oregon, describing the brutal training benchmark of walking three miles in 45 minutes while wearing a 45-pound vest.

She became a senior firefighter this year, a permanent job with the U.S. Forest Service after five years of training and part-time firefighting.

Now she’s in a better position to help less-experienced colleagues. Just like she was aided at Weber Basin Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center in South Weber.

Noonchester, 25, is one of about 300 Job Corps students trained as wildland firefighters at the South Weber center over the past several years. Those students and graduates have been on the front lines of the fight against the West’s ever more destructive wildfires.

But it’s a program that is under fire by the Trump administration. The government in May said it planned to close nine Job Corps centers that train firefighters and turn over Weber Basin and 15 others to private contractors that have nothing to do with the Forest Service.

The administration backed off the plan Thursday after heavy protests. But a union official representing workers at Weber Basin said the threat is not over.

“Our feeling is that for whatever reason, (administration officials) have decided they just don’t like the program,” said Walter Johnston of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3284.

Noonchester, an Arizonan, enrolled at Weber Basin to learn the welding trade in 2014. Early on during an assembly, Brandon Everett, assistant fire management officer, invited any interested students to accompany firefighter trainees on their daily physical training sessions.

“It was terrible,” she said of the running, hiking, pushups and the rest. “It hurt so bad. It broke me off.”

But she admired what the firefighters were doing, so she kept at it, attracted by a model for improving her life.

“I smoked at the time, but quit that real quick,” she said.

Before she knew it, she was a firefighter trainee.

“It just all happened so quick,” she said. “I had no desire to be a firefighter, but I fell into it.”

In the years since, she has amassed a body of experience and training that has made her a well-rounded wildland firefighter. She’s been on hand and engine crews, helicopter teams, and has achieved certification as a helicopter crew member.

She credits Everett and others at Job Corps for inspiring her, caring about her and training her well.

”SHE PROVED ME WRONG”

Everett said Noonchester succeeded after starting at zero.

“Jaimme was one of those individuals that I honestly didn’t expect to make it,” Everett said. “Some people who walk through the door are not necessarily one of those types you see making it through a program.

“That’s what I saw. But she proved me wrong.”

2013 Avon Fire in Weber County

Members of the Weber Basin Job Corps Fire Crew work down the fire line of the Avon 2 Fire in Ogden Valley on Thursday, July, 11, 2013. The fire started the previous afternoon and grew to 95 acres by Thursday morning.

Everett said Noonchester grasped all the firefighting essentials and exhibited problem-solving skills that had not been apparent.

Job Corps teaches trades to young people from disadvantaged environments. You could not find a much more disadvantaged person than Musa Abdallah, who fled war in Sudan and became a refugee.

Abdallah showed up at Weber Basin as a blank slate. He could not speak English and did not have a high school education.

Today, the 25-year-old speaks English well, is a high school graduate and works for the Utah Department of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He’s a member of the Alta Hot Shots fire crew and hopes to become a full-time firefighter with an urban fire department.

“I am really, really grateful for Job Corps,” Abdallah said in a phone interview while taking a break from fighting a fire in Colorado.

“You can improve your life, and it is up to you,” Abdallah said. “As a refugee I appreciate the state of Utah. This is my country now and I can do whatever I can.”

He said that in fighting fires, he feels he has helped people.

“The question I ask myself, if not Job Corps, what am I going to do?”

Job Corps 04

Assistant fire management officer for the Forest Service at Weber Basin Job Corps Brandon Everett poses for a portrait on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, at the Job Corps Center in South Weber. The Trump administration is considering doing away with the firefighting training program.

“Musa has taken all the things we’ve given him and really taken those skill sets and that training and he’s stepped out on his own and become a very successful individual,” Everett said.

He said Abdallah’s also close to becoming a U.S. citizen.

Noonchester and Abdallah furthermore stand out as people who volunteer to help others who’ve been in their shoes. For example, Abdallah works with Utah Refugee Services to find opportunities for others, Everett said.

“All of my students walk through my door with a personal story, and some will really tug at your soul and make you rethink really how bad you thought you had it,” said Everett, who grew up in South Ogden.

During the 2018 fire season, Weber Basin firefighting students worked 22,340 hours fighting dozens of fires around the West, said Donica Bigelow, Weber Basin director.

Weber Basin Jobs Corps firefighting graduate Jaimee Noonchester

Jaimee Noonchester, who became a certified wildland firefighter at the Weber Basin Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, walks near a fire line in this undated photo. 

Asked whether a contractor could replicate the program if the Forest Service tie is broken as planned by the Trump administration, Bigelow declined to answer directly. But later she responded by email that the firefighting program “requires tremendous Forest Service support.”

Weber Basin fields a fire engine squad and several camp crews that offer camp support during the fire season, Bigelow said.

Seven permanent and three seasonal Forest Service employees run the program, she said.

Weber Basin received the Forest Service Chief’s Award for Excelling as a High-Performing Agency for the firefighting program’s accomplishments in 2017, according to Bigelow.

In Washington, the Labor and Agriculture departments faced strong pressure from dozens of congressmen, labor unions and others over the planned cuts, which were explained as efficiency measures.

“The administration’s decision to cut this essential fire support after several years of record-setting forest fire activity and at the beginning of a new fire season could have a devastating impact on forests, communities, and families across the country where Job Corps (firefighters) serve as first responders,” the National Job Corps Association said in a June 10 statement.

Jaimee Noonchester, wildland firefighter trained at Weber Basin Job Corps

Jaimee Noonchester, who became a certified wildland firefighter at the Weber Basin Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center, walks near a fire line in this undated photo.

In Oregon, far from the political furor, Noonchester said she misses the place she considers her home: Weber Basin Job Corps.

“I really love that program,” she said. “I can’t even explain how much it did for me and my future. I really love those guys. I am out here living my life and making the most of it.”

Noonchester also managed to earn her welder’s certification, which enables her to do welding work during the winters.

She said the proposed Job Corps cuts were “crazy.”

“I can’t believe they are trying to shut it down,” she said.

For the employees, she said, “it’s devastating, everything they’ve put into that program. They must feel so unappreciated.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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