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Burning Conflicts : Men on Fire Lines Reflect on Perils of Life in Gangs

Times Staff Writer

Perched on a 2,000-foot slope in the wilds around Big Sur, 15 young men from DeWitt Nelson Conservation Corps sat around a campfire, serenaded by the sound of crackling timbers. On the higher mountain looming above them, a 200-acre portion of the park burned out of control, shooting fluorescent flames into the night sky.

The men--many of them former gang members--belong to a squadron of about 1,400 firefighters working to stop the blaze before it raged out of control through the surrounding wilderness.

In interviews, the youths spoke of the challenge of turning back flames in the California wilds, but they also talked of the challenges--and difficulties--of staying out of trouble upon their return to freedom.

Ramone Marlborough, 20, grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A Bloods gang member since the age of 12, Marlborough recalled how he spent his days committing crimes before entering prison in 1987 on an armed robbery charge.

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“I’d go out--do a couple of crimes--like robberies or stab a few people--drink a couple of beers--and go to my girlfriend’s house,” Marlborough said. “You have to commit crimes to prove yourself, even commit murder. We were doing it just to do it.”

Jesse Alig, 19, a member of the Norte 14 gang in Salinas, grew up in a similar setting. A gang member since the age of 10, Alig was first busted for drug possession at 12 and entered a drug rehabilitation program at 15.

In prison, the two became friends because their gangs wear the same color--red.

“It’s about brotherhood, it’s all about respect. I give him my respect,” Alig said. But the friendship does not extend to everyone.

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Crew members said fights frequently break out in the dormitories between rival gangs and between blacks and whites.

‘Let Him Burn’

“We won’t even talk to them,” said Alig, referring to members from the rival Sur 13 gang.

“I might talk to them (Crips) but I wouldn’t eat or drink with them or wear their coat,” Marlborough said.

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Most of the young men said they enjoy the freedom the camp provides. Convicts seek an assignment to the camp because they get to work outdoors and also earn $1 an hour for their efforts. And if they perform well in the camp, they often receive reduced sentences.

Aware of Dangers

The work itself is challenging and at times life-threatening. One inmate was killed and six others injured in this fire when a burning tree fell on them. But the hazards are second nature to the corps.

With the fire crews, said David McMaster, 20, from Modesto, “You see all the stuff you’re missing. In the state parks you see people camping and you realize you miss a lot of things in here. I just want to go home; I’m staying out this time.”

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If McMaster can stay out he will be one of the lucky ones. According to camp supervisors, about 70% of convicted youths return to prison, many times because they return to the environment they were brought up in.

Marlborough said he plans to stay out of gang activities as much as possible. But, he admitted, “It’s really easy to get back in gang violence.”


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