Skip to Main Content

Washington

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    A first season as a wildland firefighter. It was one for the record books. see more

    My first season as a wildland firefighter

    By Colin McLaren
    as told to Steven Boyd Saum

    Photo by Colin McLaren

     

    By October 2020, wildfires in the western U.S. burned an area larger than the state of New Jersey. A story from the front lines.

     

    Typically when we’re out on a fire, we work 16 hour days: up before six and finishing with a pretty late dinner — whenever the work is really done. But recently two of the fires we worked overnight, to 9 a.m. the next morning.

    We were on the Cold Creek Fire in Wenatchee, Washington. We went there directly from the Pearl Hill fire, a little east of Lake Chelan. Before that, the Chikamin fire, close to Leavenworth, the district we're based out of in Washington. Earlier in the summer I was down in Arizona on the Magnum fire, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Then the Bighorn Fire, on Mount Lemmon outside Tucson. In between I went to Modoc National Forest in Northern California, and to the fire at Lava Beds National Monument.

     

    The Bighorn Fire, near Tucson. Photo by Preshit Ambade

    The California fires we were working around the clock. Everyone's a little fatigued. Basically all of September we had maybe three days off. But it’s valuable work.

    This is my first year on a hand crew. I’m part of what’s referred to as the dig, typically using a tool called a scrape. Chainsaw teams cut the big stuff out of the way. The dig follows behind, scraping a perimeter in the dirt and trying to establish a line that fire will not cross. 

    The fire we were on most recently was pretty intense. We did a backburn, where you burn off of an established fire line to remove the excess fuels in between the main fire and the area you absolutely don't want the fire getting to. While we’re doing that, embers get sucked up from the heat and convection currents and can be spit out as far as a mile away. We had spot fires from embers, and we really had to rush around.

     

    “One we ran from, it looked like a volcano erupting. Kind of a scary moment.” Photo by Colin McLaren

     

    We’ve had to run from fires a couple times — which happens when it’s gotten too hot or winds have changed, and the fire could overtake you if you don’t hightail it out of there. A couple times people had to deploy fire shelters. One we ran from, it looked like a volcano erupting. Kind of a scary moment. Then we got in a safe place, organized, and went in and did direct suppression and some background stuff to protect the houses and nearby agriculture. We worked all night. In the morning, the fire basically put itself out because of the work we had done.

     

    Wildland crew heads toward the fire. Photo by Colin McLaren

     

    This is work I wanted to do after Peace Corps. It can be extremely difficult. There’s a refrain that you’re not a hero until you die. In terms of paychecks, most of us are the lowest level employees — technically “forestry aide” or “forestry technician.” After a disaster it’s: “Wildland firefighter died.” So there’s a discrepancy in how we’re treated as employees versus the reporting that goes on.

    If we’re able to stop the fire, on an environmental level that's a lot of carbon not being released into the atmosphere. As wildfires get really bad, they get attention. Now the weather’s hotter and drier in September; historically, the West Coast should be getting rain sooner. This is one result of climate change — and it will get worse as the environment gets hotter. Some people don’t want to hear the the direct connection between climate change and how it has made the fire season longer. We’ve certainly been seeing it in California, making the extremes more extreme. In Seattle, the past weekend was the smokiest that it has ever been.

     

    Cold Creek Fire in Wenatchee, Washington. Photo by Krista Williams 

     

    I lived for two years in Nepal as a Peace Corps Volunteer, 2017–19. I remember talking with older people in my village—which, by the way was not in the mountains; most of Nepal is actually in the subtropics. The pre-monsoon season has gotten hotter and drier; their whole agriculture calendar is changing. And communities have basically no safety buffer. Will they be able to adapt to a more intense climate? They’re not climate refugees yet, but whole corn crops might be at risk.

    American society is not set up to combat climate change. We’re some of the worst perpetrators on the global level. The Peace Corps experience I had showed me the importance of community: how a strong, extended family structure is very capable of dealing with shortages and other bigger scale problems that might cripple individual households. Helping each other out.

     

     


    This story appears in the Fall 2020 edition of WorldView magazine. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Black Lives Matter: Voices and Scenes from Protests with the Peace Corps Community see more

    George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. Elijah McClain. A fraction of a terrible litany of Black lives taken by police. Since Memorial Day Returned Volunteers have been on the streets to join protests—and lead them.


     

    “Racism cannot be cured solely by attacking some of the results it produces, like discrimination in housing or in education ... We must also treat the disease of racism itself.”

    —Sargent Shriver  |  Founder of the Peace Corps, in a speech at the First National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, 1958


    Elizabeth Smith went to Myanmar in January to serve as a Volunteer. When she was evacuated, she wrote, “I never thought I would meet a group of such motivated and genuine people.” In Palm Beach, Florida, her motivation has taken her to the streets. And she writes, “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.”

      

    “This isn’t about just George Floyd. This is about what happens if there wasn’t a video of George Floyd’s execution.”

    —Nathaniel Sawyer   He served as a Volunteer in Ecuador, has worked as a corrections official, and has been leading protests in Monterey County, California.

     

    Nathaniel Sawyer served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. He is helping lead peaceful protests in California against racial injustice.

     

    “It is so heartbreaking that in a moment of pandemic, so much racialized violence is happening that we will die in order to prevent our deaths. We will die in order to prevent our deaths. And I don’t know if that has sunk in for the broader community yet. But that is the difficult nonchoice at this moment. If not now, when? Our black and brown community is risking their lives.”

    —Jocelyn Jackson  |  She served as Volunteer in Mali 2005-06 and cofounded People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, California to serve the community.

     

    Jocelyn Jackson cofounded the People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, California to serve the community and to spark discussion, connection, and long-term change.
     

    “People are looking for what is the solution right now. The main source of solution is expression. We’re coming in to make sure that that expression in Little Rock is as healthy as it can possibly be.”

    —Tim Campbell  |  Campbell served as a Volunteer in The Gambia 2017–19 and has been leading protests in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

     

    Tim Campbell has been leading protests in Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of a group called The Movement. He served in The Gambia 2017–19 and is a graduate student at the Clinton School of Public Service. In June he was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement.

      

    “By living out Peace Corps values here at home, we’ll have a better society, one that honors and celebrates our differences.”

    —Corey Arnez Griffin  |  NPCA Board Member and former Associate Director of Strategic Partnerships for Peace Corps, Griffin is CEO of Global Government and Industry Partners.

      

    J’Ana Diamond was teaching in China when it was announced in January that the program would close—and then all Volunteers were evacuated. For her birthday in May she raised money in memory of Ahmaud Arbery and to stop gun violence. In June she has been  protesting in San Diego.

     

     “We want to make sure any matters involving police are as transparent as possible. We want to get the correct data collected so we can shape the policy, and we want to be able to have a hand in seeing to it that these officers are held accountable whenever they step out of line.”

    —Garrison Davis  |  Davis served as a Volunteer in Moldova 2019–20 and has led protests in Delaware.

     

    Earlier this year, Garrison Davis appeared on Moldovan television, speaking Moldovan. Back in Wilmington, Delaware, he co-led the march We Still Can’t Breathe (March for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor) and a meeting with the governor of Delaware as well as the mayor and attorney general of Wilmington.

     

    “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

    —Martin Luther King, Jr.

     

    “Every damn day,” Sara Gilbert says about her protests at home. “Momentum won’t cease.” Gilbert served as a Volunteer in Benin 2018–20. Back home after being evacuated, she’s protesting in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. 

     

    “You will have an identity that will be more Peace Corps than Special Forces.”

    —John Scott Thomson  |  Camden County Police Chief, to new recruits. The New Jersey city dismantled its police force and restructured it in 2015. A drastic reduction in violent crime has followed.

     

    Jeremy Cutler served as a Volunteer in Tanzania before he was evacuated. A graduate of Howard University, he has joined protests in Washington, D.C. On June 6 he wrote: “We marched for our ancestors … We marched so future generations won’t have to, and for a change to come.”

     

    The same racism that kills Black people also separates families at the border.

    —Sign carried by Chanel Jimenez  |  Jimenez served as a Volunteer in Panama 2019–20 and has taken part in protests in Texas.

     
     

    On May 27 the Instagram channel @blackpcv posted: “Those that have/had the drive to serve abroad should also be bothered by what is going on at home and motivated to help.” On June 5 came this image, along with the reminder that Black volunteers deal with  racism at home—and in service abroad.

     

    Justice or Violence: You Choose.

    —Sign held by Langston Thomas  |  Thomas is 22, just graduated from Grinnell College, and planned to begin serving in Peace Corps in the fall before the pandemic hit. He was tear-gassed and hit with a rubber bullet in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.


     

    Ashley Behnke was working on literacy initiatives in Saint Lucia in the Caribbean before she was evacuated. Currently in the Washington, D.C. area. Her hashtags: #protest #inequality #blacklivesmatter #racism #love

     

    “The vast majority of Americans are demanding that we take on this national challenge to confront institutional racism ... U.S. international and foreign affairs organizations should rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broadbased policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices.”

    —Aaron Williams  |  Director of Peace Corps 2009–12 and Volunteer in the Dominican Republic 1967–70. From an essay he wrote for Devex.


     

    Photographer Zen Lael took this shot. He was training to serve as a Volunteer in Nepal when he was evacuated in March. Back in the New York area, he says: “I am staying under the oath to both the Peace Corps and my humanity to uplift, empower, and help change what I feel  is wrong.”

     


    Check out NPCA's racial justice home page for more. This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Jeremy Wustner-Brown posted an article
    Jeremy champions Peace Corps ideals after service through his involvement in affiliate groups. see more

    By: Jeremy Wustner-Brown (Romania 2011-2013)

    Before joining the Peace Corps as a 30-something, mid-career volunteer, I gave a lot of thought to what I really wanted to do with my life. At that point, I had already been fortunate to have had a great career with a number of outstanding firms, but I knew I wanted more. During this period, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl discusses the meaning of life and how we can flourish in the face of daily challenges. The book is rather somber, but has had a lasting resonance with me. At the heart of it, Frankl posits that it is love that enables us to endure. For me, love is all about community and community is one of the many things that the Peace Corps provides.

    This remains true following service as well. Not long after returning from my host country of Romania, I worked closely with a colleague to establish the General Services Administration (GSA) Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) Employee Association, or GREA for short. Also as a result of that work, I was asked to run for the board of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, D.C. (RPCV/W) and today I serve the community as their Communications Director. These are both great organizations that work closely with NPCA as affiliate groups while doing their best to represent the RPCV community. I’ve found my time with both to be similarly rewarding to Peace Corps service itself.

    Another influential book that drives home this point is Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. The NPCA hosted Junger this September at the Peace Corps Connect conference, where he discussed Tribe's focus on the benefits of a strong community. As members of the Peace Corps community we are fortunate to have served abroad in host communities with great social networks, and are equally fortunate to have come home to the great social networks of the RPCV community.

    All of our paths are different, and what drives us varies widely, but for me, much of my purpose in life is satisfied through these communities, by continuing Peace Corps’ mission through them, and building lasting, meaningful relationships with those I serve alongside. So if you’re ever feeling down, or left out, know that as a current volunteer, an already returned one or as an aspiring volunteer, you’re surrounded by a loving community of likeminded folks dedicated to service.

    Support affiliate groups and help grow their resources and infrastructure today through the Community Fund!