Diné among four others to graduate from fire fighter academy

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, January 24, 2013

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(Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: New fire fighters with the San Juan County Fire Department stand on stage to be sworn in Saturday at San Juan College in Farmington.

SECOND FROM TOP: An honor guard with the San Juan County Fire Department stands with ax in hand Saturday during the San Juan County Fire 1 Academy in Farmington. Seventeen cadets graduated to become full-fledged fire fighters.

THIRD FROM TOP: Fire fighter Lisa Becenti with the San Juan County Fire Department smiles Saturday night in Farmington. Becenti and sixteen other cadets graduated from the San Juan County Fire 1 Academy.

FOURTH FROM TOP: Hardy Woody, who is the father of San Juan County Fire 1 Academy cadet Derrick Woody, pins his fire fighter badge on during his graduation at San Juan College in Farmington.

E ver since he saw a fire truck's blinking lights as a young boy, Elijah Atson, 23, had always wanted to be a firefighter.

On Saturday, Atson achieve that dream. He was among four other Navajos in a class of 17 cadets, the largest class to date, to graduate from the San Juan County Fire I Academy as firefighters during a commencement ceremony held at San Juan College.

"I feel very happy, excited," Atson said moments after receiving his fire-training certificate. "All my life I wanted to be a firefighter."

Atson, who is Tódich'iinii (Bitter Water People), born for Kisani (Hopi), started the fire academy last August and in the process completed 11 credit hours of fire science courses. If he continues his education, which he plans to do to achieve the rank of a safety officer, the credit hours can go toward a certificate or Associate's degree in fire science.

The Fire I Academy, which is part of the San Juan College Fire Science Program, is offered twice a year in August and January. It consists of 80 hours of firefighting, a 40-hour basic course on the differences of wildfires, a 16-hour hazardous material operations course, and a 24-hour class on emergency care.

"We started this class with over 20 and we said, 'Boy, I don't know, with a group like this, how many are going to make it," Mike McKinnon, SJC's fire science coordinator, told the 300 or so people in attendance. "Look up here, this is impressive. They're well on their way to a good, strong future."

Besides Atson, the four other Navajos to earn these same credit hours and the designation of firefighter are Lisa Becenti, Shane Begay, Derrick Woody and Travisson Wrangler. They will volunteer with the Shiprock District 12 Fire Station.

District 12 covers an area of 982 square miles along U.S. Highway 491 from south of Shiprock to the Colorado state line and along U.S. Highway 64 from Hogback to the Arizona state line.

The district also provides mutual support to District 1, 13, and 14 as well as BIA agencies in the area.

District 12 fire chief Jeff Holtsoi said he welcomes the five new firefighters to his team, adding that with them he has 17 firefighters to address the call volume of about 1,000 calls per year.

"They're all young," he said. "They all did their training and I expect them to understand that their training has to happen out in the scene."

Becenti, who was one of four women to become a firefighter on Saturday, first began her firefighting path last March as a volunteer and then prepared all summer for the fire academy.

"I can't believe I made it," she said, explaining that the physical nature of the profession "takes a lot adrenaline. I feel so accomplished."

The Table Mesa, N.M. native is Honagháahnii (One Who Walks Around Clan), born for Oze Táchii'nii. Her maternal grandfather is Dibélizhini (Black Sheep People Clan) and paternal grandfather is Tódich'iinii (Bitter Water People).

For 19-year-old Wrangler, he is most excited about providing a safer community by using the skills he acquired from the fire academy.

"I can put out a fire, deploy the hose, put on an air pack...hook everything up," he said. "I know how to go inside with two-in and two-out. I know how to communicate with them and if somebody is hurt I can help them."

The county fire department covers 5,520 square miles in San Juan County, plus 1,200 square miles of neighboring counties in Arizona and Colorado. The fire department consists of 14 fire districts operating out of 23 fire stations, including the Shiprock District 12 fire station.

Lynn Acosta, Ashley Cordova and Nicolai Hensley were the co-salutatorians of this graduating class. Acosta will volunteer in District 6 at the Lee Acres Fire Department, while Cordova serves District 8 at the Hart Valley Fire Department. Hensley is stationed at the Cedar Hill Fire Department, part of District 3.

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