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Firefighting is mostly white and male. A California program aims to change that

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Firefighting departments nationwide have tried to diversify their ranks for years. They have made only modest progress. Today, the profession remains overwhelmingly white and male. From member station KQED, Farida Jhabvala Romero reports on one program in California that's trying to change that.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: I first met Lupe Duran in 2017, just weeks after his home was destroyed by a massive wildfire in northern California. The 23-year-old welding student was overwhelmed with loss, sleeping on relatives' couches. But the disaster made Duran realize he didn't want to feel powerless against any fire.

LUPE DURAN: Well, it was the feeling of wanting to do more, wanting to actually help and give back to the community.

ROMERO: Today, he's well on his way to becoming a firefighter paramedic. He's enrolled in a unique program preparing people of color and women for careers in the fire service. It's called Fire Foundry, a nonprofit collaboration between Marin County and area universities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All team, you ready?

ROMERO: At a rope rescue training in a redwood forest, a female recruit repels off a ravine near a creek. Once at the bottom, she puts a harness on a colleague pretending to be in need of rescue. And from the top of the cliff, Duran and the rest of the team pull on a rope until the two are back on the trail.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK.

ROMERO: On a break, Duran says he's excited to learn these skills from professional firefighters, but he says their mentorship and connections are key too.

DURAN: The captains you meet, the battalion chiefs you meet, it's - you can't really get that exposure just walking in off the street, you know? If - unless you know somebody that's in the fire department, which really makes a difference.

ROMERO: This one-year program is different in that it pays for everything from prerequisite classes and books to career guidance and even housing at fire stations. Recruits also work clearing brush and trees that fuel wildfires. And that income was a game-changer for Duran, who was struggling to switch careers while working as a landscaper full-time.

DURAN: So we're working right now. We're actually getting paid to do this training through our program, which is an awesome difference. The experience, you know, is - I can't put a value on the experience that we're learning right now.

ROMERO: Nationwide, more than 90% of firefighters are men and about 85% are white, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California, big-city departments such as Los Angeles and San Francisco are more diverse, following discrimination lawsuits and settlements that took years. But Marin County's fire department today is still more than 80% white. Marin County fire Capt. Rick Wonneberger says expanding diversity will help them be more effective as firefighters.

RICK WONNEBERGER: My engine, you know, currently we're all English-speakers. You know, some of us can speak a little bit of Spanish, but how much better would it be if I truly was fluent? How much that person would feel truly at ease?

ROMERO: As for Duran, he's getting closer to his goal. He's completing an emergency medical technician course. He's set to get a fire technology degree. And he just got a seasonal job with the county inspecting homes for wildfire defense.

DURAN: Oh, it's very exciting. I mean, it's all I've wanted for the past six years. So it's, you know - took some time, but it's paying off now.

ROMERO: The Fire Foundry program is just over a year old, but long-term funding is in question. Duran says he worries other people coming up behind him won't get the chance he got. For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Marin County.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Farida Jhabvala Romero / KQED