NASELLE, Wash. (AP) - Crystal Horne has been burned before. The
quarter-sized pink scars on her left forearm testify to that.
And, for a time, the 17-year-old girl with the anarchy tattoo
and flame-red hair seemed destined to burn out: drinking heavily,
dealing and using drugs, running from police.
But when her bad deeds landed her in juvenile prison, she found
a calling that turned her stubborn energy into a saving grace:
Fighting wildfires.
Horne now leads an all-girl firefighting team of juvenile
offenders from Naselle Youth Camp, in the southwest corner of
Washington state.
There, car thieves and gang-bangers learn to put axes, shovels
and chain saws to good use. They plant trees, clear brush and
maintain trails, while training and hoping for a big wildfire to
fight.
This summer, she and the other girls on crew watched on TV as
firefighters battled fierce blazes in Oregon, Colorado and other
western states - but not in Washington. They itched to prove
themselves.
"I like this," Horne says, "It's something I can say I did
good at."
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The girls wake at 6:05 a.m. every weekday in their small, locked
rooms. Horne, her hair now faded to its natural strawberry-blonde,
leaves a stuffed animal on her bed and a "Chicken Soup for the Cat
and Dog Lovers Soul" on her desk.
Waiting outside their dorm after breakfast, the sleepy girls
light up as foreman Sid Hicklin ambles into view. Lanky and tan
from years in the bright sun, Hicklin worked in law enforcement
before joining the Department of Natural Resources.
Supervising the girls is unlike any other job, he says as he
drives the crew truck up a pitted dirt road.
"They take everything I say to heart. I can't be so critical,"
he says. "Some of their backgrounds are really devastating. You
just have to build them back up."
He's learned a lot they don't teach in forestry school. He knows
who's taking new medication, whose father just died, who's in or
out of the ever-shifting cliques. His daily log has notes like,
"Girls are nit picky. Told them to work without talking."
The one thing he doesn't know is what crimes the girls
committed. He says he never asks.
When Hicklin stops at an overgrown crossroads, the girls climb
out of the truck, which everyone calls the crummy, past a
blue-and-gold decal on the door with the words, "Hicklin's
Angels."
"Let's go," he calls to them. "Three saws this morning."
New girls take a while to build the muscle needed to cut trails,
saw branches and run chain saws.
"I wasn't used to working that hard," says Cassandra Carey,
15, of Lynnwood. "You start to get the hang of it and you start to
get in shape. It starts to build your self esteem."
Carey has earned a blue hat, a mark of leadership, while serving
time for possession of stolen property. It's the first time she's
felt like a leader. Following her friends got her the gang tattoo
below her eye - three dots for "Mi Vida Loca," my crazy life -
that she now wants removed.
"I always feel stupid because I've committed crimes. I feel
looked down upon," she says. "You come here and it's like they
don't even care. You're working so hard, your mind just is free."
She proudly remembers the time they cleaned a cemetery. Some old
ladies had tried to clear the brush and weeds, but couldn't, and
afterward they thanked the girls.
Carey notes with some surprise, "It's fun to do good once in a
while."
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Washington used to have several youth rehabilitation centers
like Naselle. After years of budget cuts, now Naselle's the only
one. Naselle staff are understandably nervous about next year's
anticipated state budget crisis.
The camp has four boys fire crews and one for girls. Everyone
else works, too, whether in maintenance, the sign shop, the garden
or the fish farm. After work, they go to school and counseling.
Superintendent Thomas Quinn wants them to learn social
responsibility. He thinks it sinks in. Last winter, the 150 inmates
raised $3,000 to "adopt" a local family for Christmas.
Recently a Naselle graduate called the camp, demanding to speak
to a boys' crew foreman. Sirens wailed in the background, and
everyone assumed the worst.
But the boy had become an Emergency Medical Technician; he
wanted to thank the foreman.
The worst thing to happen to the fire crew program was in June
of 2001, when two boys beat their foreman and left him for dead.
The severely injured foreman survived. Now security staff
accompanies the crews.
Generally, Hicklin trusts the girls until they give him reason
not to. In return, the girls adore Hicklin. He's like a father to
them. They notice how he talks about his wife and family with
obvious love.
"On the outs," their term for outside world, "you don't see a
lot of that," Horne says.
In the afternoon, the smell of cut spruce and pine fills the
warm air and the girls start dragging.
Clearing brush is fine, they say, but they really want a project
fire. They'll get to leave the camp, sleep in tents and eat good
food, maybe even talk to boys. They also get paid, though not as
much as professional firefighters. The idea of a real wildfire
scares some, but they believe Hicklin would never put them in
danger.
It's not just the promise of excitement and food. This is their
chance - a second chance - to do something good.
Amy Earl, a sometimes surly 17-year-old from Tacoma, loves fire
crew.
"I like knowing I'm saving people's lives," she says.
She was charged with criminal assistance to murder after her
boyfriend killed a friend. The same boyfriend gave her three
sexually transmitted diseases and urged her to drop out of school.
He's serving a life sentence for murder. Earl believes fire crew
put her on a different path.
"My saw breaks down, I have to fix it," she says. "Now it's
like, I'm my own woman and I don't need anybody to make decisions
for me. It's time to realize it's not a game any more, this is
life."
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As summer waned, the girls finally got their chance. On Aug. 18
they went to a 100-acre fire near Spokane - not big by wildfire
standards, but it was threatening several homes.
Horne, who's from Kelso, says people gave the all-girl crew some
odd looks, but they quickly proved themselves by extinguishing all
the hot spots in their area.
"Everyone was really surprised," she says. "When they
realized just seven girls did all that work, they were like,
'wow."'
As advertised, they did eat well. They were impressed by the
flavored coffee creamers, which they had never seen before.
The work was tough, a lot of hauling water hoses and running up
and down hills. The air was so smoky their skin turned black even
under their clothes and three girls got nosebleeds. But they
persisted.
The girls can't talk to outsiders on a fire, but Horne
appreciated when people waved or called "thanks!" It made her
feel like the woman she wants to be.
"It's given me an opportunity to do what I can, to be a
leader," she says. "On that big fire, y'know, I kinda felt free a
little bit. I want to keep doing that."
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Naselle Youth Camp on the Net:
http://www.naselle.wednet.edu/nycs/nycs.html