The alarm comes from down below.
There’s a fire that’s out of control and it’s racing up the hill. There’s not much time to react. Everyone needs to get to the safety zone as fast as they can.
Without a word, the yellow-shirted group of firefighter trainees takes off fast up the steep hillside above them.
Danny Atkinson smiles as he watches them go.
He knows that in a few minutes, they’ll be hurriedly deploying their fire shelters on the top of the ridge as part of a drill that might someday save their lives. It’s just one of many things the group of Trapper Creek Job Corps students and Forest Service firefighters will learn through the center’s guard training session.
Standing alongside the newly constructed foot-wide fire line the trainees had just completed on the steep hillside, Atkinson must have wondered if it would the last time that he’d ever see that.
For the last 4½ years, Atkinson has worked alongside Trapper Creek’s Fire Management Officer Justin Abbey to create a fire training program that has been rated the best in the nation. With recent news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service wants to either close down or transfer all of its Civilian Conservation Centers to the U.S. Department of Labor, which plans to privatize them, the future of the center is unclear.
That’s not easy news for a man who has seen this place change so many lives, including his own.
“I became a Trapper Creek Job Corps student in 1998 and I’m still one today,” Atkinson said, as he settles in a patch of shade on a steep hillside. “The students think I’m teaching them, but the whole time they’re teaching me.
“I have been taught all kinds of things since going through natural resources, conservation and wildland fire training,” he said. “I’ve been a firefighter with the USFS ever since, as well as a hunting guide, packer, horseshoer and blacksmith, but most importantly a good husband and father. This place has 100% helped me break the chains of poverty so my little girl and my son, who will be born in September, will never have to go through what I went through.”
Before Atkinson arrived at Trapper Creek, he was someone you didn’t want to meet late at night in a dark alley.
“I was involved in all types of illegal activities including gang violence, substance abuse and 100% pure hate,” he said. “I was lost. And this place, along with putting God first, gave me the foundation to build a life on.”
That accomplishment comes with a great deal of well-earned pride.
In the Atkinson home, his high school diploma and GED hang on the wall in a prominent place next to a newspaper article written at his 2000 graduation from Trapper Creek.
“It’s kind of a funny thing,” he said. “My wife’s master’s degree and all of this other stuff is stored in a box and we have my little GED and little high school diploma hanging there on our wall. It’s there because it was tough to get. I worked very, very hard for that. I was so focused and dedicated because I wanted to be somebody. I’ve consistently been getting better step by step for the last 21 years of my life.”
“I failed the GED six times before I finally passed it and now I can teach 400-level fire classes,” he said.
Working alongside Abbey, the two have created a fire-training program that has been catching the eye of others across the county.
“We’ve worked to create a 21st century take on fire training,” Abbey said. “We want to create a thinking firefighter who is very qualified for the tasks they’ll face when they go out on the line.”
Abbey remembers his introduction to fighting wildfire. It involved four days in the classroom and 10 minutes digging line.
Trapper Creek’s guard camp graduates don’t spend much time inside.
“We try hard to incorporate all the different aspects of what they might encounter so when they get exposed to it when they’re not in a controlled environment, they don’t freak out,” Abbey said.
The success in doing just that has brought opportunity for both the young firefighters and a nation whose firefighting resources are often stretched during wildfire season.
Last year, Trapper Creek fire crews and support teams put in 68,621 hours in 11 different states as far away as Wisconsin. That doesn’t include the 10,641 hours they spent working on prescribed fires and other fire-aligned projects.
When the students are working on fires, they’re being paid. That money they earn helps them get started in life when they graduate from the center.
But when they’re not on fires, the crews are working a wide variety of other projects that range from clearing trail to cutting firewood for campgrounds. In 2018, the appraised value of that work (figured at $8.50 an hour) was $390,000.
The Trapper Creek crews have more than doubled the amount of work they accomplished in 2014 that was appraised at $149,089. They also more than tripled the amount of hours they spend both fighting fire and supporting fire camps. In 2014 that total was 21,417.
The two instructors agree the young men and women who seek out Trapper Creek’s fire program are getting better every year. Many come to the Bitterroot Valley for a chance to be part of the program.
With 62 students who have earned red cards this year, Trapper Creek now has the ability to quickly provide a surge of firefighters should the need arise. But with the uncertainty about the center’s future, many of those students may be forced to stay close to home so they can complete their education and graduate.
And that’s a shame, Atkinson said.
“In my opinion, most people want to put us Job Corps students in a box,” he said. “Most people think that we are people who are uneducated, criminals, gang members, not worthy of an opportunity. And they’re right.
“Some of us are uneducated, but we’re learning to read, write and do math,” Atkinson said. “Some of us have been in some trouble with the law, but we are learning how to respect authority and follow the rules. And some of us have been affiliated with gangs and super-bad people, but we are finding out that if you are good to other people, even if they don’t deserve it, people will be good to you.”
“The only person not worthy of an opportunity is the one that didn’t take it,” he said. “All these students took that chance to come out of their comfort zone and step into a new life. The old is gone and the new has come.”
Atkinson has seen that time and time again, but an experience this past February really drove it home.
A Trapper Creek student named Levi White was named as Corpsman of the Year. Atkinson and Abbey accompanied him to Washington, D.C., where he accepted his award.
“Here was a kid who came to Trapper Creek thinking about some really tough things,” Atkinson said. “He was in a rough way and had been homeless. Within two years of coming here, he was standing in Washington D.C. shaking hands with congressmen and senators.”
While the vocational and educational training students receive at Trapper Creek is great, Atkinson isn’t sure that it’s the most important or long-lasting.
“For the first time in our lives, we’re in a place where somebody truly cares about us,” he said. “What we get out of this program — beyond learning a trade and getting an education — is we learn who we are and what we are capable of becoming. It’s given us the basic fundamentals for a foundation on which we can build the rest of our lives.”
When Atkinson was in Washington, he got up in the middle of the night to take a walk on the National Mall. For the first time since he had arrived in the city, he was all alone.
At each monument, he knelt down on his knees and prayed for his country.
“It was just me there and God,” he said. “Little Danny Atkinson, who had come from absolutely nothing, standing there in Washington, D.C., as a man with a good life. And I was there with a student that I had taught.”
Atkinson will spend this summer as the foreman of the elite Bitterroot Hotshots. He’ll work alongside with a current Trapper Creek Job Corps student and a former graduate while the politicians back east decide the fate of the place that’s meant so much to him.
“I have a hard time believing it will close,” he said. “There’s just no way. The spirit that’s there is unbreakable. There’s too much good for it to just to go away.”