From the Hoods to the Woods
"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.
Los Angeles Clippers v Charlotte Hornets - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsSun., Feb. 26, 6:30pm
Los Angeles Lakers v Charlotte Hornets - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsTue., Feb. 28, 7:30pm
Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets - Verified Resale Tickets
TicketsWed., Mar. 1, 7:30pm
UCLA Bruins Men's Baseball vs. University of Michigan Wolverines Baseball
TicketsFri., Mar. 3, 6:00pm
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.
Bugga Red was so caught up in the web of gang life, so addicted to the excitement that coursed through him anytime he went out on a gang mission, that nothing else counted. So what if his grandmother taught sixth grade at Miller Elementary? Bugga Red showed up at school when he felt like it. Homework was something to be ignored. Teachers were fools. He made passing grades, but building a rep in the neighborhood was his only concern. He had to be the baddest, the toughest, the fastest to retaliate.
“I remember one time I stole a big ol’ color TV from a neighbor’s house and carried it on home. Me and my brother got in a beef and he kicked in the screen, bam! So I shot him in the back with a .22 Remington automatic. My grandmom took him to the hospital, and I think that’s when she really knew how involved I was in gang life.”
Involved is perhaps not quite the word; obsessed seems nearer the mark. “We didn’t care about no girls, no school, no church. Nothin’. The only thing we cared about was gangbangin’.”
Bugga Red and about 50 other kids his age — 12 through early teens, all of them looking to make their reps — formed a kind of task force. “These were the guys who was really puttin’ it down. We were the enforcers. Anything came up needed to get done, nobody had to tell us to go do it. It was already done.”
When Red was 13, he was convicted of the armed robbery of four Jack in the Box restaurants in and around South-Central L.A. Customers seated at tables were robbed as well. Twelve charges in all. The sentence handed down was 12 years at CYA. Red still claims he was set up: “They really wanted to get me off the street.”
The smoke is making him gag. Thick, black snot is running out of his nose. Everything he’s wearing under the protective gear is drenched with sweat. None of it matters; this fire is bad and getting worse.
His first three months at CYA were spent in Receiving: 24-hour confinement in a single cell, out only for classes at the on-campus school and a one-hour recreation period. There was a Bible in the cell, and, desperately bored, the kid began to read. One evening, a month or so after his arrival, he picked up the book, turned to a picture of Jesus and whispered, “Please, God, forgive me. I can’t do no 12 years.” Then he hanged himself with a bed sheet.
When he regained consciousness, he was in restraints in what he refers to as “the padded room.” When he was told that his grandmother was there, he refused to see her and turned his face to the wall. Minnie kept coming back, and Red kept refusing for the two months he had left in Receiving. “I was ashamed and, at the same time, confused. Because I was so into loving the neighborhood, which I felt was lovin’ me back. Back then, see, I was more into the neighborhood thing than family morals.” He hesitates briefly. “And, I got to admit, I knew damn well my grandmother was gonna lecture me up one side and down the other.”
Two weeks after his failed suicide attempt, Red was moved to a cell where he was in close proximity to other Eight-Tray Gangstas. “It was my homeboys kept me alive with they moral support. They knew I was young and that I had been born to [gang life]. Knew I didn’t know nothing about the system. They gave me ‘Tray Love.’ ”
Within four months, he was relocated to permanent housing at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton. “Close wasn’t as bad as CYA. They was girls in there, at least — you’d see ’em in class. Couldn’t mess with ’em, though.”
Checking out the girls is not Red’s most vivid memory of the seven years he served at Close. What he remembers most clearly is that one of his fellow enforcers from Eight-Tray, “Sad Face,” was doing time there as well and that he had put it to use by enrolling in the camp’s college-prep course. Bugga Red and Sad Face were tight on the outs (homeboys, after all, and about the same age), and the years in confinement strengthened that bond. But Red took a pass on the college course.
The sound is terrible. It’s like a battalion of 18-wheelers headed straight at you going at top speed. You can almost make out the snarl of engines and the whine of downshifted gears above the crackle of burning brush.
Bugga Red was released in ’83. Nineteen years old, on parole, and straight back in the life. Two things had changed: He had forged a relationship with his mother, Antoinette, during his time at Close. And he was now considered an O.G. He lived up to the honorific: six months of freedom and he was in trouble again.
“I was slangin’ drugs and got into a confrontation with some rival gang members. I got in my car and drove ’round the corner. Then I came back and shot all four of ’em with a 12-gauge pump. Three of the blasts got the one guy who was talkin’ all the mess. The others was wounded, but they still managed to run to the cops.” He pauses. “They all survived, but the guy with the mouth was paralyzed.”
Within 30 minutes of the shooting, Bugga Red heard the police bullhorn outside his grandmother’s house: “DeShion McIntyre — Bugga Red — we know you’re in there. Come out of the house with your hands over your head.”
The house was empty; Minnie-Mac had gone to the beach with some relatives, and Red, escaping the area as soon as he heard the bullhorn, was already on the run. He stayed with a girlfriend for a couple of weeks, and then he heard the police were stopping by his grandmother’s house every day, poking around, asking questions. He turned himself in at the 77th Street station in the neighborhood where the shooting had taken place.
Red was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in order to commit grave bodily harm. He tooka deal from the district attorney: seven years at Corcoran State Prison. Serious time in a serious place. Corcoran was the model for the infamous Pelican Bay, and it is one of the toughest maximum-security prisons in the country. Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson are among the inmates serving life sentences at Corcoran. It is where eight guards were indicted for arranging prisoner gladiator-style fights in the yard.
“When I first got there, they put me in the hole for about a month — until they decided where they were going to place me.” His voice develops an icy edge. “You in yo’ socks and yo’ underwear and that’s it — you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Yo’ food, everything, is brought to you. The only time you get out that little cell is when they take you for a shower every four days. Nobody talks to you. You just somethin’ to guard.”
When Red was released from solitary, he was placed in a double cell in general population. “At that time, Corcoran was rockin’ and rollin’. Because of the race wars goin’ on there — Mexican on black. Sometimes the guards would put a Mexican and a black outside in what we called ‘the rec room,’ which was just an enclosure, and then they’d make bets on who would come out on top.”
Small animals are racing past him — deer, rabbits. Owls flap through the roiling smoke, frantic to escape. His mind is peppering him with memories of his first time out: a brushfire off the 210 West in 1995. The 20-foot flames sparked a sudden realization that the dangers he had faced as a gangbanger were nothing compared to an out-of-control fire. Getting shot was nothing stacked up against the crackle and lick of fire on flesh. That first blaze hammered down for him the orders he had learned in training, and turned a spotlight on the “watch out” situations he’d learned about that could not only save his own life but those of every other man on the crew. His greatest, most lasting fear surfaced that day: To be part of a crew that didn’t follow the rules. To have to tell somebody’s family that their son, husband, daughter got burned up because a standard fire order had been ignored.
Red was determined not to make trouble; he wanted only to do his time. “But soon as I hit that yard, I ran into a rival gang member. We looked at each other and, bam, it was war.” His lips curve into a smile that doesn’t make it to his eyes. “We standin’ there, mad-doggin’ each other, gettin’ ready for it, when a lifer — a guy who had already been down for 16 years — come up next to me and whispered, ‘Be cool. We already got enough trouble.’ ” The lifer was talking about the race war, of course, and he was making sense. Red thought about it and took a step back. The rival gangsta hesitated, then he stepped off too.
Within a week or so, whenever he was outside, Red noticed the guards would say, “?’Sup, S.C. . . .” He didn’t understand, so he started asking around. The guards were referring to him as a shot caller — high praise. It defined Red as the final word for all Crips on the yard. Then there was a knifing, a “sticking,” during free time. Two rival Mexican gang members, one claiming allegiance to the North faction, the other to the South, got into it.
“The gunman in the tower picked me out as the sticker because of my complexion,” Red says, “and I got thrown in the hole for it.” He was there for four days, all the time trying to get someone to listen, trying to explain he’s not Mexican, he’s black; he’s not from North, not from South, he’s a Crip. Finally, another inmate recognized him as Bugga Red from Eight-Tray, and he was returned to general pop.
Two weeks later, the race war escalated, and Red was on the frontlines. He was charged with inciting a riot and sent back to solitary confinement. Back alone in a cell 23-seven. No TV. Nothing but the Bible to read. This time, he began to read in earnest, beginning with Genesis and plowing straight through. He was in solitary for four months. He read the Bible every day; studied it, took it in. When he was moved back to regular housing, it didn’t take long for personal tragedy to overtake him: His mother died of cancer, and his brother, Kenny-Mac, was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“Between those two things, I was on the verge of losing my mind. My mother died first, and that was a lot to go through, but it wasn’t unexpected. My brother had just finished a four-year stretch at Soledad, so I was expecting to see him when I got out the next year. I had just spoken to him — he asked me to call him the next Friday — and I had said, ‘I ain’t gonna call you Friday. I’m gonna let you get yo’self together first.’ ”
Friday came, and Red was at chow when the guards came to inform him that Kenny-Mac was dead. Red stood up to face them: “Naw. Naw! Don’t be tellin’ me my brother dead. I just talked to him — I was supposed to call him today. Don’t be sayin’ he dead.” When Red called home, Minnie-Mac told him that Kenny had lain in the county morgue for five days as a John Doe, unknown and unclaimed.
The remainder of the year passed slowly. Red descended into a depression so engulfing he spent most of the time in his cell, unavailable even to the homies. Nothing could entice him out of himself.
Red’s cousinJade came to pick him up upon his release from Corcoran and, as a kind of gift, brought along a girl: Monique. Monique was pretty enough, and she was clearly intrigued at the prospect of being with a genuine outlaw. Red went home with her to Rialto.
“I figured, comin’ out of prison, that was a way to keep out the hood.” But two weeks later, he was back at Minnie-Mac’s in South-Central, ready to re-up with the Eight-Tray Gangstas. One thing stopped him:
“I had made a promise to myself that I wasn’t never goin’ back to prison.”
Some of the homeboys came to the house that first week. “We was kickin’ it, smokin’ a little weed, and I told ’em I had to find me a job. And they started in talkin’ how they was all about fightin’ fires now as part of a crew called the Panthers. They was goin’ on about how the Panthers was with the Highlanders, which was part of the U.S. Forest Service, and I got interested. But the homies said, naw, I was too involved with the neighborhood to be in the program.” He displays that thin smile again. “That made me more interested. See, I wanted a way to give back to the neighborhood. Wanted a way to help inner-city kids in trouble.” He made a promise to the guys sitting in his grandmother’s living room. “I told ’em if they gave me an opportunity, I would run away with it.”
One of the homeboys at the house that day was a Panthers program manager. Red remembers that this guy had remained silent during much of the talk, just sat and listened. “This dude knew if I could turn that negative into a positive, then I could run a whole lotta things.” The guy vouched for Red, and a week later, McIntyre was accepted as a Highlanders trainee. Highlanders was the name of a temporary fire crew, part of an employment program that had been developed by the U.S. Forest Service in the wake of the ’92 riots in South-Central L.A. The program was originally designed to provide jobs for those people living in areas most affected by the rioters. Ninety-five percent were African-American, most of them young guys out of South-Central.
He is focused only on this fire now, making A-one decisions. Because he’s not just thinking about himself and the other guys on the crew; this fire is chewing its way toward residential areas. There will be some homeowners rushing to get out and you have to wonder if the roads can accommodate the traffic. There will be people who don’t want to leave and you’ve got to explain the seriousness of the situation without scaring the hell out of them. You have to allay their fears at the same time you’re leaning on them to get the hell out. Sometimes it’s not just the fire you got to fight.
Assistant Chief Jim Hall has been with the Forest Service since 1979. Hall is a powerfully built man, a onetime firefighter turned training officer. He nods approvingly when I mention Red McIntyre. “Yeah, McIntyre came to us through a program called Opportunity L.A. that came into being after the ’92 civil unrest. The Angeles National Forest wanted to keep their CWN [Call When Needed] fire crews in place, and this program supplemented us with a temporary firefighting force of hand crews when we had to dispatch our regular crews to other parts of the country. We drew down our regular personnel, but we still needed to protect our home front. So we put these crews together and we mixed Crips and Bloods — that was probably our biggest challenge.”
Challenge is right. Hall and other training officers had to persuade young men and women loyal only to their neighborhoods to exchange red or blue for the green and yellow of the U.S. Forest Service. “We made it clear that if you wanted to be in the program — if you wanted to change your life — you had to change your ways.”
The first all-black crew in the country, with members culled, street by street, from South-Central L.A., was called the Panthers (renamed Highlanders in ’98). There were confrontations between rival gang members at times, and Hall had to deal with them. During one three-man face-off, he pulled the whole crew off a fire.
“But, let me tell you, this program has gotten some really good folks. Not only from South-Central, but from other community-based programs in East L.A. There’s the Aztecs and, as of last year, the Fuego Rangers. And 95 percent of them are gang members. These programs are here to stay, and the one we have here on the Angeles is a model for the rest of the country.” Hall is smiling now. “Want to clean up your gang areas? Present them with another way of life.”
“I was pretty much the only Crip among the gangbanger trainees in my group.” Red’s memories of his early days with the Highlanders are vivid. “All the others was Bloods, mostly from the Jungle. There was some civilian trainees too.” He describes his two weeks of taking classes in basic firefighting standards and living at the training center in the San Fernando Valley for two weeks as “goin’ to college and stayin’ in a dorm.” But he admits to retaining “the neighborhood attitude, which meant I was on the lookout for any sign of disrespect, any stepping over that imaginary line. The only thing I got was courtesy and respect. That taught me a lot about people. And I’ll tell you something: Being on the fire line with Crips and Bloods, having your life in their hands, sleeping next to them on that fire line for 21 days — which is how long that first fire went on — sharing food, sharing cigarettes, sharing emotional thoughts and physical thoughts of fear together, that crew becomes your family outside your family.” I notice that when Red is speaking about the job, he speaks more precisely, dropping the elaborately casual diction of the gangs.
Hunger is hitting him hard. He pulls an MRE from his backpack and rips it open: spaghetti with tomato sauce. He wolfs it, and although it takes the edge off, he knows the 15 minutes allotted for a break won’t recharge him much. This fire’s still blooming, but at some point, he and the crew are going to have to “coyote out” — find a rock and use it as a pillow to snatch a few minutes of rest. He stretches wide and scratches at the insect bites on his chest and arms. Damn stump fuckers — come at you in swarms from under the tree bark, get you right through your clothes. He glances at his watch for the first time today: 2:15 a.m. They’ve been on the line for nearly 18 hours.
After that first fire, Red knew what he wanted to do with his life. “I learned something I never knew before: I saw that more than gangbangers, even more than police officers, everybody respects firefighters. And from then on, I made a commitment to myself that I would become the best firefighter they had ever seen.”
Two years and 25 fires later, Red was promoted to crew leader, in charge of 25 men and five women. His new responsibilities allowed him to make good on the promise that he would reach out to at-risk kids in South-Central. He instituted classes three days a week in St. Andrew’s Park, a broad sweep of carefully tended lawn and shade trees where family outings and children’s birthday parties coexist with gangbangers’ picnics. About 15 kids from the hood showed up for the first class. Red showed them how to fill out applications for the program, taught them the rudiments of firefighter requirements and delivered a heads-up for the program classes. He described the physical training they would have to undergo, and he told them how hard they would have to work. Most important, he suggested to them an alternative to life on the street.
One of the kids, David Hasting, was with the Eight-Tray Gangstas; they called him Tiny Squally. He was the nephew of Red’s old road dog and fellow enforcer, O.G. Squally. Red decided to give back some of the “Tray Love” that had gotten him through the hard times at CYA by mentoring Tiny Squally. He can still recall how much of himself he recognized in the young homeboy: “Mostly the determination that he was gonna get himself out the neighborhood.”
Hasting signed up as a trainee for Red’s crew on Highlanders, and he went at it with everything he had. Red remembers one training session vividly: “It was a Saturday and we was all on our way to Griffith Park. I had my crew there in the parking lot, getting set to begin a hike at 8 a.m. David was the only one wasn’t there yet, but we decided to cut him some slack. We had waited about 10 minutes when here he comes. I ask why he’s late, and he tells me he got pulled over by the cops and that his car was taken in on Los Feliz Boulevard at the bottom of the hill — maybe two miles down from where we was. He had ran up those two miles to meet us. Then he P.T.’d with us [did a Pack Test] for a three-mile hike carrying a 45-pound load of equipment.” Red considered Hasting’s behavior that day as the final proof of the kid’s determination to be part of the crew. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about yo’ car. We gonna get you three or four cars.’ ”
Hasting was set to graduate from trainee to firefighter the following week. “All the guys on the crew accepted that kid. He had become one of them.” The day before the graduation ceremony, Red and his crew were on a fire when they got the news: David Hasting — Tiny Squally — had been killed in a drive-by shooting. His body was found next to a Dumpster in an alley.
“I got the word and called David’s grandmother, who told me arrangements were being made and that expenses would come to $8,000. I told her not to worry about it, that me and my crew had been excused, that we were walkin’ off the fire line. Told her we was on the way home to bury our soldier.”
Before he got back to the city, Red made a few calls. “We had somebody go get the body and take care of everything for $5,000.” There remained only one more call to make; Red had a special request to make to the Forest Service.
The morning of the funeral was clear and warm. People were outside, walking to bus stops, watering the small plots of green in front of their houses, clustered in groups on corners. The rise and fall of conversation and laughter punctuated the steady rumble of traffic. Then silence, like a fall of dominoes, began to spread along the street. David Hasting’s cortege was moving slowly past, headed toward the church. All activity came to a halt. People called out to those still inside to come and see; women in the upper stories of apartment buildings along the route leaned out of open windows; kids jostled one another to get close to the curb, and gang members in baggy jeans and immaculate sneakers came up out of their signature slouches. Nobody spoke as two engines, manned by their entire crews and flanked by LAPD officers on motorcycles, set a deliberate pace. The wreath-covered hearse bearing Hasting’s body came next, followed by two more fully crewed engines and another brace of motorcycle officers. Bringing up the rear of the procession, a Lincoln Navigator limo carried the members of Red McIntyre’s crew. Every man was in full uniform, and each of them wore a banner across his left shoulder with the legend “In Memory of a Fallen Soldier” and the dates of David Hasting’s birth and death. He was 19 years old.
When they reached the church, six of the men formed an honor guard at the entrance, and Red and five other crew members carried the casket inside. Many of Hasting’s fellow gang members — both male and female — attended the service, taking up rows of seats at the back of the church and filing slowly past the coffin to pay their final respects. But no one dropped a bullet into the folds of the silken lining; no one draped a blue-and-white kerchief across Hasting’s folded hands as do-or-die symbols of gang solidarity. This was a final salute to a firefighter and every person there knew it.
The fire is out after four days of nonstop battle. He wants only to shower and grab a few hours’ sleep now. He thinks of all those commercials where winning athletes slice a paid-for few seconds out of their triumph to announce that they’re going to Disneyland and his lips twitch into a half-smile. No Disneyland, no weeklong cruise down the coast for him or any other guy on the crew. It’s fire season; they have to get ready for the next round.
We meet up with Stanton Florea, fire-information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, at a 7-Eleven located near the corner of Osborne Street and Foothill Boulevard, a barren stretch of land with a disturbing history: This is where Rodney King was beaten into submission by four LAPD patrolmen. There used to be a service station next to the 7-Eleven, but it was torn down after too many tourists with a taste for the sensational stopped to gawk. The condo from which the beating was videotaped is still standing.
We’re to go from this location into the Sequoia National Forest, where Red McIntyre is part of a crew fighting a sleeper fire that has been burning for three and a half days. Florea explains that a sleeper fire is one that begins in a single tree due to a lightning strike or some other factor, then smolders and flares up later. A ground crew is needed to drop the tree; a helicopter showering water won’t always get the job done, Florea tells us. “I worked a lot of sleeper fires in the eastern Sierra before I got on the Angeles. They’re fun.”
We’d planned to go up to the Dawson Fire (which is what this sleeper has been tagged), but Red missed the call to the fire and is back at his post at the Valyermo station, where he is an engine operator as well as a firefighter. We follow Florea in the mint-green U.S. Forest Service station wagon along the 138 to the Pearblossom cutoff. Up ahead is a low-flying helicopter with a long, mosquito-like extension dangling from its belly. Florea pulls over and walks back to our car, gesturing at the copter.
“See that? That’s a Sikorsky Type One. It just pulled up about 2,500 pounds of water from a canal, and it’s about to drop it on that sleeper. We get maybe eight to a dozen of those a day when cumulus clouds create lightning.” He grins suddenly. “You know, there’s this urban legend that after a fire in the foothills outside San Francisco, the body of a scuba diver was found trapped in a tree — supposed to have been sucked up from the bay by a Forest Service helicopter.”
The Valyermo station could be mistaken for a collection of large, freshly painted tourist cabins if it were not for the U.S. Forest Service flag and the mint-green fire engines parked around the property. These engines are smaller than those used in urban areas, and each one, called a “10-person module,” is outfitted with rows of bucket seats in back. Side panels are tightly packed with all the equipment and supplies (including specialized tools for digging fire lines and clearing out dirt) vital to a face-off with a blaze that can go on for days. There are five men, including Red McIntyre, on the engine crew at Valyermo; they drive the engines to the fires, and then they help to fight them. One man, the water tender, supplies water to the engines from nearby aqueducts and streams.
The others at the station are the Valyermo Crew 4, known as the Hot Shots, an elite squad of 20 men, all of them in their early to late 20s. Even their everyday uniforms are different: Instead of green and yellow, the Hot Shots wear black T-shirts and work pants, and there are as many ’hawks as conventional haircuts. Matthew Bailey is in his third season here. “We’re the ones punching in the line, working sometimes for 32 hours straight. By the end of the season, I’m in the best shape ever. We do about three hours of full-gear physical training every day, but beyond everything, we go fight fires. That’s our priority.”
“That’s our love,” adds Matthew Snyder, who has spent three years on the Hot Shots. “Next to our families, this is the thing.”
It is early afternoon. Red has gone out with other engine crew members in response to a smoke check in the area, and some of the guys are kicking back in the rec room. There is an atmosphere of easy camaraderie in here, and when I mention it, Bailey is quick to reply: “That cohesion runs pretty deep with us — we’re more than co-workers. We’re family.”
There are a few ex–gang members up at the Valyermo station, and two of them are in the rec room this afternoon. They have both asked for anonymity, and each of them bears the scars of bullet wounds from drive-by shootings. If there was animosity between them on the streets, it has been replaced by a deeper sense of loyalty to the common goals of every man on the squad: become the best firefighters they can be, suppress wildland fires and support risk management on both fire and nonfire emergency incidents. Whatever colors they pledged their lives to in the past have been replaced by their allegiance to those of the U.S. Forest Service.
Minnie McIntyre is in her mid-70s now, but she has the voice of a much younger woman. She chuckles when I mention that when Red tells his story, he sounds as if he was a handful to raise. “Oh, yeah. That’s the truth, for sure. There were so many times I just couldn’t reach him at all. It was like he was made of stone — nothing got through to him when he was running with the gang.” She pauses for a moment. “But he’s doing fine now.” When I ask how she feels about all those homeboys who used to gather at her house, she replies quickly, “You know what? They was pretty good guys. Most of them just couldn’t get it together. A few did good, though.” She mentions a couple of Eight-Tray Gangstas whom I have known through the years as hard-working family men. Minnie-Mac goes quiet again. Then she makes a final comment about her grandson Red:
“He made a U-turn in his street. A U-turn in his life. I’m thankful for him and proud of him.”
Red and Leomie McIntyre have been married for five years. They have a 3½-year-old son, LeShion, and two of Red’s children from a previous relationship live with them: 8-year-old TreShion and DeShion Jr., 9. Leomie has four kids from her first marriage. They range in age from 16 to 22, and the eldest is married with a son of his own. The two youngest live with the McIntyres; as of last year, the 19-year-old is with Leomie’s mother. Leomie, a gently pretty, soft-spoken woman who looks too young to be a grandmother, works for the county. For the past three years, she has provided in-home services to senior citizens. It’s work she enjoys. When I ask how she feels about Red’s past, her voice lifts slightly: “I know he’s been through a lot in his life. But he’s come through it a different person. He’s a wonderful husband and a great father. I’m very proud of the man I married.”
Red McIntyre was transferred last year to the Mill Creek Station, near Palmdale, where he completed further classes and accomplished four certifications. He is the operator for Engine 18, and since Labor Day he and the Mill Creek crew have been squaring off against the Day Fire around Lake Castaic with nearly 2,200 fire personnel. As of Monday, the fire had consumed nearly 80,000 acres and cost $16,782,000 to bring to 15 percent containment.
“My whole life, my whole intention since I been a firefighter, is to give to the youth of the community, because so many of these youngsters have been misled by other gang members. I feel I owe that. If I can change just one kid’s life, I owe that. Twenty years ago, I would probably have just offered them a gun. Now the only thing I hold out to them is a job.” This time, his smile moves up and settles in his eyes. “It’s like, ‘from the hoods to the woods.’ ”
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.