By Kelly Hartog
Steven Watkins comes to FIELD’s Fire Program following a 33-year career as a Battalion Chief for the Bureau of Land Management and as an Interagency Incident commander. After retiring from BLM, he joined FIELD in January 2023 as the Fire Program Manager and Acting Natural Resources Manager.
Watkins was instrumental in helping to implement the recent partnership between FIELD and the Kern County Fire Department that will help students gain a foothold at that agency. He spoke about his work with FIELD and his goals for FIELD graduates to find meaningful work that will allow them to become self-sufficient.
He took some time to answer our questions.
What about FIELD made you want to work here?
When I was getting ready to retire from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), I was invited to an event where FIELD received $8 million in funds from the state. It was that event that opened my eyes to what I wanted to do when I retired. I wanted to make a difference. I saw everything that FIELD was doing and I realized that two thirds of what they do day-to-day is what I dealt with as a firefighter or working in natural resources – taking lesser-served individuals and giving them a purpose to provide an income to their families and serve their community.
I had other offers that would have paid more, but it wasn’t about the money for me. It was about how I could make a difference. These students have a purpose. They’re not going be accountants or full-blown businesspeople, but they can run a small vocational business. And I wanted to see how I could contribute to that. That’s what resonated with me.
In your dual positions, have you been able to craft the job to accomplish your goals?
Yes, and we’re still defining the job. Wildland firefighting and natural resources go hand-in- hand. So, I figured out how I can help with the firefighting during the summer months, but during the winter months I could work on projects with our natural resources, get grants and work with community projects, work on camp grants, everything that our corps already does.
My goal was to strengthen the narrative for the corps members to understand that there is crossover work available, with the Bureau of Land Management, Park Services, Forest Services, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife.
I push back on the myth that all we do is fight fires all the time, because that’s not true. We work on natural resource projects. That could be putting a fence up, putting a field break in, working in a campground, building trails.
What are some of the things that you teach at FIELD?
I teach that there are two spectrums and they’re seasonal. You have summer and winter, but they both have a huge benefit to wildland firefighting in the natural resource side. And I educate them to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It’s not just, “Hey, I’m putting a trail in,” but why we’re doing it a particular way. It’s about understanding the habitat, the plants, the wildlife species, the cultural side of things, which I did in my previous job. That’s why I wanted to teach and educate these students.
What was your role in helping forge the cooperative agreement between FIELD and the Kern County Fire Department?
My professional relationships I had built over my career for years with county fire departments helped me coordinate with them to improve and understand how FIELD could help enhance public safety within Kern County. That helped to create partnership in the effectiveness of emergency response to sharing risk management protocols, fire danger ratings, preparedness levels, fire resource response change, fire suppression actions, post fire After Action Review (AAR) outcomes, cooperative training opportunities and fuels management projects.
Why is this agreement so important and what are the goals moving forward?
The agreement allows FIELD to establish a working relationship with Kern County FD. It creates a pathway for future sponsorship to assist wildland incidents and other emergency incidents locally and abroad.
The agreement also allows FIELD to create and strengthen partnerships with local city, county, state and federal agencies to give our Corp members the hands-on experience of what it’s like to support wildland incidents and other emergency incidents.
How many FIELD students do you estimate will be able to get jobs as a result of the MOU?
I estimate anywhere from 20 to 80 percent of our students who apply. I know that’s a wide range, because it depends on the individual. I would say about 20 percent of those individuals that enroll through FIELD and go through either CTE or EPIC and go through the wildland side and understand the wildland and natural resources, have an excellent opportunity to get full-time jobs in the private, federal or state sector — with benefits.
Tell us about some of your success stories.
During my short time here, in my classes, I’ve helped six of my previous 19 students get jobs with the Bureau of Land Management, with the Forest Service, and the state agencies with the Kern County Fire Department. Having been integrated in the wildland side of things for all those years, I can teach students that this can be a steppingstone to being self-sufficient for themselves and their community.
My goal for FIELD is to continue that trend of getting students jobs. Every year I’m not just educating them in fire, I’m educating them in natural resources. So, there’s two different spectrums of employment and then I put a resume class on for them to be able to apply for jobs.
Would you say that’s your proudest achievement so far?
Yes, but I also think what I’m working on right now is important too: how to restructure the Caesar Chavez Environmental Corps into both wildland and natural resources and teaching both, because both are a benefit to employment. That’s my long-term goal – to continue that trend for them, and also let them know there are avenues of social business where they can create their own businesses going forward.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The coordination between the educational side between CTE, EPIC and the Corps to teach those individuals how important it is to get a high school diploma and get certain certifications to benefit them going forward.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
When we have previous students come back and talk to current corps members about their journey, and they are able to say, “I was in your shoes, but you can move on from hard times and make a difference and get a full-time job.” That is the most rewarding to me, that we’re educating a percentage of our corps members to understand the benefit of time management, being a student again, and checking that box. We’re seeing that success and it’s great.
What other goals do you have with your work with FIELD?
FIELD is known locally, but not so much on a broader scale. I would like to be able to make it known country-wide and let students know that they can seek jobs beyond California. What we’re teaching them can work around the country and I want to give them the ability and the confidence to reach out to apply beyond California.