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Former gang member finds redemption by fire

FiresJuvenile DelinquencyGang ActivityWildfiresJails and Prisons

As the warm day winds down for lunch, Ramon Maestas, sweating and covered in soot after a morning of work, turns his attention to a man rumbling toward him in a Subaru Outback. He has hippy long hair and a bumper sticker that declares: "Love Mother Earth."

"Hey man," the stranger calls out in a warm voice to the 23-year-old. "Thanks for helping us with the fires. You guys OK? You need anything? You need a ride anywhere?"

"Nah," Maestas says, squinting in disbelief as if the offer were a prank. "We're OK."

The man drives off, kicking up a trail of dust along the back road, and Maestas cracks a wide grin.

"That would never go down in L.A.," he says. "There, they see me and all I hear is click, click, click when they lock their doors."

A year after joining a seasonal fire crew based out of Lincoln Heights that helps gang members start anew, Maestas is still thunderstruck by his dual personas. Back in Echo Park he is Little Ray, the menacing gangster. Here, in the thick of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, he's Ramon Maestas, the heroic firefighter.

Little Ray frightens people when he struts down Echo Park Avenue, white socks hiked to his knees, bald head marked with a tattoo of a woman's red lips, all attitude.

Ramon Maestas, the firefighter, makes people feel safe. He wins strangers over in his dusty green and yellow uniform; they give him free food and say, "Thank you for saving our homes."

When scores of residents flee in fear of wildfire, Maestas charges toward the blaze, hopeful that in time, the flames will cleanse him of his turbulent past. There are moments amid the ash and smoke -- when a stranger opens a door for him or townspeople hang a banner in gratitude -- when he can see the other side, when he can picture a new life as a full-time firefighter.

Someday, maybe, his work, not his gang name, will earn him the respect of others.

"I've never had people treat me like that before," Maestas says. "It's beautiful."

In the summer of 2007 Maestas stood in handcuffs before a judge on a gun charge. His record had trailed him since he was 15, when the scrawny, self-described "knucklehead" was first locked up for taking a high-speed joy ride in a stolen car. He bounced in and out of jail for eight years for grand theft auto, tagging up walls and carrying a gun.

Today, because he is on probation, one more mistake could cost him at least five years in prison.

"If I spit the wrong way, I'm done," Maestas says.

Growing up, he never stopped to think of the future. His father died of a drug overdose before he reached junior high. His mother faded in and out of his life. Uncles and aunts -- some members of the Echo Park gang -- urged him to avoid the streets. So did his grandparents, who raised him.

But Maestas grew mulishly proud of his neighborhood gang, and if anyone insulted it, the kid would respond with his fists.

About a year ago, Maestas' fast life began to thrust him toward the fire line. He was locked up in Castaic on the gun conviction, and his absence was taking a toll on his grandmother. The 66-year-old woman who had stood by him all his life, scouring Echo Park streets for him in the middle of the night when sirens blared, became ill.

Maestas was terrified. A few years earlier, when he was jailed for a probation violation, his grandfather fell sick and died. Maestas missed his funeral. He could not bear the thought that he might lose his grandmother and not be home to say goodbye.

"I felt bad for hurting my grandma," Maestas says. "I thought, 'I gotta do something right. I gotta start something. I gotta get me a career and be a straight square.' "

When he got out of jail, a cousin told him about Aztecs Rising, a gang-intervention program that trains youth to become forest firefighters. The thought of wiping out fires and pushing himself to compete excited him.

He strolled into the program's Lincoln Heights office with two homeboys, said Executive Director Enrique Hurtado. Maestas had a criminal record, but was clear of violent felonies that would have disqualified him. If he worked hard enough, he could follow the example of other participants and qualify for a permanent job with the U.S. Forest Service.

Nearly 2,000 young men and women have graduated from the program since Hurtado launched it in 1994, most of them moving off the street and into steady jobs. A former gang member himself, Hurtado cleaned up after getting hired by the Forest Service.

He returned to Los Angeles after fighting fires nationwide, motivated to persuade other gang members to follow his lead. In no time, he had 50 men -- some from opposing neighborhoods -- jogging single-file at local parks. In 2000, the city began funding the program, which is now struggling to stay afloat.

Participants enter a paramilitary lifestyle designed to channel their loyalty for the gang to the fire crew, and they undergo six months of intense fitness training. They also learn about fire physics, wind patterns, fuels and topography. Their tempers are tested as crew leaders yell and push them to the limit.

"The homeboys will always be there," Hurtado tells them. "But the gang lifestyle is just going to take you to the cemetery, to prison or to the hospital."

Afew weeks into training, Maestas and two friends are reprimanded for throwing Echo Park gang signs. Soon after, his friends cheat on a written exam and get kicked out. Maestas leaves a bad impression on Hurtado, and he is cut from the fire crew.

But Maestas returns, determined not to fall off track. He vows to follow the rules. He seems sincere, and after a long talk Hurtado decides to give him a second chance.

Maestas immediately begins to outshine his peers.

"With more assignments," Hurtado says, Maestas "could easily land a position with the Forest Service." Ultimately, he adds, "it's up to him."

After joining Front Country Crew 6 on three fires, Maestas is promoted to squad leader. He makes his crew members crack up with his childlike laughter and goofy facial expressions, then dares them to push harder.

The program, Maestas says, "is all I have left. That's why everyone sees me get so pumped up."

During one morning workout, some crew members are close to giving up, legs ablaze in pain. But Maestas won't have it.

"Keep 'em up, dog," he hollers at them, his own firm limbs trembling. "You can do it, baby. Think about something else. This one's for the crew."

The Crew 6 firefighters he leads are mostly Latinos and stand out at the fire base set up by the Forest Service on the Trinity County Fairgrounds near Redding. These guys came from the big city, not the mainly white, bucolic towns most forest firefighters call home. Few had ever driven outside of Los Angeles.

Maestas and crew are assigned to Hayfork, a tiny, churchgoing, deer-hunting community where locals meet up at a family dairy store. Over the summer, the nearby Lime Complex wildfire consumes more than 95,000 acres.

Up on the mountain, Maestas still walks with a swagger. He won't remove the tattoo of his neighborhood ZIP code, 90026, inked across his stomach. He keeps his head shaved, and "Echo Park" is scrawled across one soot-stained glove.

"I gotta watch my 'hood ways and my bad mouth," he says. "I cuss too damn much."

On Aug. 28, their assignment in the Shasta-Trinity forest ends. Crew 6 is free to return to Los Angeles.

Maestas wakes up the next morning in a rowdy mood. He yells "Dog pile!" and flings himself on top of a sleepy crew member, then rolls his Dodgers blanket off the rugged ground and begins to pack. Their mission -- knocking down "small smokes" with shovels and axes -- went well.

Maestas arrives at his grandmother's green stucco home on a hot Saturday night. The weeks that follow test him -- as much as any forest fire.

Along these muggy, busy streets, Maestas the firefighter disappears. Instead, Maestas the ex-convict is back home. He has a 9 p.m. curfew and cannot travel outside of Los Angeles County. If he is caught talking to any other gang member, he'll be back in handcuffs.

Childhood friends, many of them Echo Park gang members, live on nearly every block of his neighborhood. They shuffle casually down Echo Park Avenue, slipping in and out of liquor stores and restaurants. At any moment, Maestas could collide with one.

He spends most of his time inside his grandmother's house or with his girlfriend. Once in a while, he joins the fire crew on afternoon hikes to stay in shape. He also makes calculated choices: He risks being seen with gangster cousins and joins his family to celebrate an uncle's 50th birthday.

A dry heat falls over Los Angeles in October. Once again, the Santa Ana winds sweep through, threatening to spark massive fires. Two in the San Fernando Valley burn down several houses. Maestas stays close to home, waiting for the phone to ring. But it doesn't.

November arrives, and Maestas grows glum. He begins to think about looking for other work, any kind. As he begins to doubt his future as a firefighter, the Santa Anas begin again.

Fires rip through Southern California, destroying hundreds of homes across Los Angeles and three other counties.

The call comes on a Friday night. Maestas and Crew 6 are to report to San Bernardino headquarters the next morning. He rushes around the house excitedly, packing his yellow firefighter shirt, his green pants and Dodgers blanket into his red bag.

"It's like Christmas morning," he says.

Days later, he heads to Sylmar -- and another chance at redemption.

Bermudez is a Times staff writer.

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FiresJuvenile DelinquencyGang ActivityWildfiresJails and Prisons
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