"You can feel a change come over you. You get hotter, drier. When you break into a heavy sweat, that’s when you know a fire is coming."
—DeShion “Red” McIntyre,
U.S. Forest Service
This one is cranking now, roaring up out of the canyon with a sound like a runaway train. He hitches his shoulders, shrugging 65 pounds of backpack into a more comfortable position; the hand tools inside clink softly. He braces his legs. His eyes narrow. He is mad-dogging this fire, daring it to take him on.
DeShion McIntyre is in his late 30s, a tough little workhorse of a man with a ready smile and a spray of freckles across the bridge of his nose. The smile cannot quite mask an unmistakable quality of cool assessment behind his light-brown eyes; it’s a look that lets you know he’s wary of your game, that if boundaries are crossed, an invisible barrier will rise up around him like a security fence. He is talking about his past as a hardcore Crip.
His weapon of choice back in the day was a .40 Glock. “We were programmed to kill Rollin’ 60s before first period.” He grins narrowly when he says this; he’s talking about elementary school. He was taken in by his grandmother when he was a baby; his mother didn’t have much interest in raising a child, and his father was a phantom figure, absent before DeShion was born. There was an older brother, Kenny-Mac, a member of the Eight-Tray Gangsta Crips, and other relatives who claimed the neighborhood: uncles, aunts, cousins. By the time DeShion was 8 or 9, he was regularly approached to be “from the hood.” The hood was the streets around Florence and Normandie avenues, the intersection that would become notorious as the flash point of the 1992 riots.
When he was 11, to keep him occupied and away from gang influences, a family friend who owned a liquor store hired DeShion to run the cash register. He wasn’t allowed to sell alcohol — too young. But he was old enough to clip 20 or 30 bucks out of the register every week. “Just thuggin’ . . .” is how he describes it now, in much the same way a bodybuilder might talk about lifting a 50-pound weight. At first, he eluded the seductive lure of membership in the heavily populated Eight-Tray Gangsta Crips (1,200 in 1977), preferring to hang with some of the homeboys from 80th Street, a small Crip faction with some 200 members. Friends and relatives from Eight-Tray continued to court him, but DeShion maintained his status as a free agent.
Then something happened that changed everything: One of the Eight-Trays was shot in a drive-by, and as the young gangsta lay mortally wounded in the street, the car sped off, stopped, turned and doubled back to run him over. Eleven-year-old DeShion witnessed the entire incident.
“I heard that dude’s head pop. Saw his brain jump to the other side of the street.” He reflects for a moment. “No kid should see somethin’ like that. That pretty much took away whatever innocence I had left and handed me back an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude. And it was that attitude led me to CYA.” The initials stand for California Youth Authority: a prison with a school attached.
He’s facing off with it now, wielding a Pulaski ax to hack away dense brush, helping to dig a line that can contain the flames, working fast against the wind. He can hear the snarl of chain saws and the whap of helicopter blades. Every few minutes, he stops and gulps water from the 2-gallon jug in his backpack — September heat can be a bitch. The smoke is playing hell with his eyes too, but he can still see pretty clearly. That can change in a finger snap; as the smoke thickens, a man an arm’s length away can melt into it.
DeShion joined up with Eight-Tray shortly after the drive-by killing. He got a street name, “Bugga Red,” and set out to prove himself a warrior. Before he hit his teens, he’d had built a reputation as a fearsome homie: “Anytime there was a gang-related incident, my name rang a big bell.”
Red’s grandmother, known as “Minnie-Mac,” was a much-respected figure in the neighborhood. He describes her as “the grandmom of Eight-Tray — everybody came to our house.” While she may have been tolerant of other gang members, including Red’s brother, Kenny-Mac, Minnie’s disapproval of that lifestyle for her youngest grandson was palpable. She argued and implored, threatened punishment; the kid was unreachable. “My homies had become my family, see. I loved my hood and my hood loved me back, so . . .” He shrugs slightly, remembering those years at the tail end of the ’70s.