ACE is proud to share a Corps To Career story with former ACE volunteer and staff, Maria Rago. Maria started as a corpsmember and would soon move up in the organization due to her passion for conservation and leadership. After her career with ACE, Maria became a Wildland Firefighter for Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and then Zion National Park. Maria serves as a role model to those in search of outdoor experience and a future in Wildland Firefighting.
Alumna Name: Maria Rago
Dates Served: July 2017- February 2020
What roles was Maria in: corpsmember, assistant team leader, crew leader
Location: Mountain West, Hurricane, Utah
Q: What were you doing before ACE?
A: After I graduated from Slippery Rock University in Dec 2016, I moved back home to Pittsburgh. I was working at a daycare program called the Eagle’s Nest that looked after kids while their parents were shopping at the grocery store the daycare was located in.
Q: How did you hear about ACE?
A: I heard about ACE from someone that I went to college with that just got a job as a crew leader. He graduated a semester before me and reached out after he spent a few months at ACE and thought I would fit in well.
Q: Walk me through your time with ACE? What was your favorite aspect of being an ACE corps member?
A: My favorite thing about ACE was moving to a place completely different from where I was living in Pittsburgh. I felt like I was getting introduced to a whole new world. I had never even been on a camping trip before so everything about ACE and outdoor recreation was new to me. I loved meeting people with different hobbies and varying experience levels so some of us could experience firsts together while being guided by the more experienced crew members who were excited to share their knowledge. There is such a great community at ACE MTW. I really felt like I met “my people.” I think doing hard physical work and experiencing the outdoors together creates a unique bond. I know that I will always have those friendships that formed at ACE.
Q: What is ACE MTW culture? How do you feel you participated in that culture?
A: ACE MTW culture is about getting outside, trying new hobbies, and including as many people in them as you can. My boss in Zion asked me and another former ACEr on our crew why whenever he sees ACErs at a climbing spot there are always so many people. We explained that’s how ACE is, whenever someone says they are going out to do something everyone joins in. It is especially welcoming when you first move into the house in Hurricane. As soon as you are no longer the new person in the house you become one of the people inviting the new members out for a hike and making them feel welcome. I went on so many hikes and trips with so many different people while I was in ACE.
Q: What was it like living in Hurricane, Utah? Any favorite activities? Hikes? What did you do on your off days?
A: Living in Hurricane made me fall in love with the desert and I haven’t really left since I got here 3 years ago. There are so many places in the area to go hiking, backpacking, and climbing. The people I met in ACE introduced me to all of these activities and when I was a part of ACE we all spent every off day doing as much of them as we could. The views are also mind blowing. I love looking around and being able to see West Temple in Zion and the Pine Valley Mountains at the same time. Especially when they are covered in snow!
Q: Did you have a favorite project? Why?
A: One of my favorite projects was the Death Valley project that we would do in the winter. We had a small crew and worked directly with the project partner removing invasive species like palm trees and tamarisk. We went back for a few hitches so we got to spend a lot of time in the park and explore more than most people will ever see. That was also one of my first hitches after I got chainsaw trained and I was cutting palm trees in the desert. I think that’s a pretty once in a lifetime kind of experience.
Q: In what ways did ACE shape your life personally and professionally?
A: Without exaggerating, I feel safe to say that ACE drastically changed my life. It took me in a whole new direction that I hadn’t even considered for myself. I studied Art Education when I was in college and the thought never crossed my mind that one day I would be working in Zion National Park as a Wildland FireFighter. I didn’t really even know what that job was. ACE opened up this world of seeing women work alongside men in a very physical job and excel at it. I met so many strong, impressive women that really inspired me and gave me the confidence to venture into a field that is very male dominated. Being surrounded by amazing women and sharing stories and experiences created a great environment for me to grow both at work and outside of it.
Q: How did you attain your positions as a wildland firefighter in Utah?
A: I actually had my first interaction with the Fire Crew I am currently on when I was a corpsmember at ACE. We did a fuels reduction hitch in Zion National Park and part of our daily routine was meeting with the Engine Captain and Assistant Engine Captain to ask them questions and learn about the Wildland Firefighting profession. That’s when I decided that I wanted to pursue a job in this field. After that, I tried to get on as many saw projects as I could and started applying to Wildland Fire jobs. I did not end up getting a fire job the first season I applied so I tried to get more experience and applied to an ACL position but was not selected. I then found a position on a saw crew at the UCC that helped me get all the basic Wildland Firefighting certifications. After my 6 month term there I was able to get an ACL job with ACE MTW where I continued to gain relevant job experience. The summer after that term was when I started my first fire season in Escalante. Now I work with people who were once my project partners in Zion. I was told by both of the people in charge of hiring me for my two fire seasons that my work experience at conservation corps was the main reason I was hired.
Q: What are your responsibilities as a wildland firefighter with ZNP?
A: I am part of a 6-7 person engine crew in Zion. We are available to get sent to a fire in the whole color country area from the Arizona Strip up to Cedar City and all the way out to Escalante. Within our crew, our roles when we are on a fire change frequently. I’ve been the person spraying water from the hose, the sawyer, the swamper, and the person digging the fire line. I would say my main responsibility being a newer firefighter is to gain as much knowledge as I can about how to work on a crew, how to fight fire, and how to stay safe so that I can help teach and lead in the future.
Q: How do you fill your time outside of Fire? What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
A: Although I haven’t had much time outside of fire this season, backpacking and climbing are my top two favorites. I am also hoping to get into trail running this off season.
Q: What comes next? What are your future goals?
A: Right now my goal is to work towards leadership qualifications within Wildland Fire. I hope to get my squad boss task book signed off in the next couple years. Another one of my goals is to recruit more women into Wildland Fire!
Q: If a prospective corpsmember were to ask you what the benefits of joining ACE are, what would you say?
A: There are so many benefits. I would say learning to work as a part of a crew and then learning how to lead a crew. I worked with a variety of leadership styles and was able to see how to be an effective leader for different groups of people. ACE is also a great way to network with potential future employers from land management agencies that are project partners. I know a few people, including myself, that have gotten jobs working for project partners from a hitch they were on. You can also get a feel for the different types of work that go into managing public lands. Trying out the types of work through hitches can help you decide what kind of outdoor work you are interested in. I also got to work in so many beautiful places. My appreciation for nature grew with every hitch that I went on. ACE is a great place for meeting friends with similar interests and then using your time off to explore with them.