Vets go from firefights to fighting fires


SCA’s Michael Madalena on the VFC

The men and women I’m training know we’re about to confront a merciless enemy. We are all military veterans, and in the field we have an objective, a plan, and the flexibility to change tactics midstream — just as in the armed forces.

In this case our adversary isn’t al-Qaida or any of the other combatants I faced with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq; it’s not even human but it eats, breathes and grows.

It’s the nearly 32,000 wildfires that the U.S. Department of the Interior says have burned more than 3.4 million acres nationwide this year. These are not low-intensity ground fires, but “mega fires” created from lack of mitigation and irregular historic fire regimes.

I’m a crew leader for the nonprofit Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps, which is tackling two seemingly unrelated challenges: giving veterans much-needed job training in the field of forestry as well as the opportunity to battle the wildfires raging across the western half of the United States. The Veterans Fire Corps ( is a 90-day training program conducted in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service that gives military veterans the chance to explore conservation-related careers, including containing wildfires.

Our crews mostly focus on fire mitigation — clearing out dead trees, debris and other potential fuels, prepping areas for prescribed burns and then burning them. But when a wildfire flares, our guys gear up and fight it alongside the Forest Service, resulting in the best on-the-job training anyone could ask for.

It’s a challenge for many veterans to find a job and build a career after returning home from military service. That’s especially true in this economy, and it’s particularly hard to find a job that not only relates closely to military service, but draws directly on military training and discipline. The Veterans Fire Corps addresses all of that: taking advantage of military training — and especially a warrior’s readiness to adapt to and overcome rapidly changing conditions — in order to confront a continuing growing danger of national significance.

On Aug. 20, the United States hit the highest level on the national wildfire preparedness scale, which charts wildfire activity. A total of 18,000 firefighters were simultaneously tackling 48 major blazes in nine Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently said that wildfires have become so numerous this season that firefighters are stretched thin.

The primary challenges for the Veterans Fire Corps are to increase its size as well as focus the fight the men and women in my unit still have in them as we move off in a new direction — while still protecting the land of the free and home of the brave. For now, the Corps operates only from May through December, when the threat of wildfires is greatest. Yet we have a great opportunity to grow because so many veterans are returning home and need this transition from military leadership to conservation leaders.

One thing is crystal clear as we watch the increasing damage of wildfires: Fire mitigation is highly essential all year long. It’s a mistake to simply react to fires. We must also take action to reduce the potential for their destructive power.

The benefits of the Veterans Fire Corps, in that regard, are clear. That it provides fire mitigation, enhances conservation and trains more firefighters who already have a solid background while also providing job opportunities for veterans is a significant achievement.

In addition, the Corps helps veterans transition back into civilian life. That can be a tough road, as I know firsthand. But it’s been easier for me now that I’m again part of a team. We have a uniform again and a real sense of importance that we felt in the military. Having that fellowship, trusting someone with your life, is important to a lot of returning veterans.

As an SCA Veterans Fire Corps leader, my mission to veterans is to provide them with hands-on experience, inspire them to live a life of stewardship and train them to be future conservation leaders.

The Veteran Fire Corps is a life-changing experience and a win-win for all — except the wildfires.

Michael A. Madalena served as a rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a crew leader with the Student Conservation Association’s Veterans Fire Corps. He lives in Flagstaff, Ariz.