Jorge Santos stands in front of North Bannock Fire Department Engine No. 21 during an equipment check on March 3, 2021. Santos has been a member of the volunteer fire crew since 2019 and will be joining the U.S. Forest Service as a seasonal firefighter this summer. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a five-part series examining the lives of law enforcement and emergency responders in the Pocatello/Chubbuck area. Read Part 1 on a school resource officer here. Read Part 2 on volunteer firefighters here. Read Part 3 on a 911 dispatcher here.
CHUBBUCK — When Jorge Santos got the call that the North Bannock Fire Department would be joining other local crews at the Chinese Peak Fire on July 19, 2020, it meant a little extra for him.
Santos and his family lived in the area. So not only was he battling a blaze that would eventually scorch more than 1,500 acres, he was doing so while casting a shadow near his own home.
Leaving the site after helping save the neighborhood left an impression on him, one that paved the way to his striving to become a wildland firefighter.
“That was a really great experience, helping out my own neighborhood, stopping that fire and putting that work in,” Santos said. “It was just an experience where, I was just, like, I knew I really wanted to be involved in that. As of right now, I’m really delving into wildland [fire]. … I think that’s the route for me.”
Santos joined the department at its inception in mid-summer 2019. When the department took its post on East Chubbuck Road in October of that year, Santos was there, training to serve the unincorporated North Bannock Fire District. Now, just less than two years in, Santos has grown into a veteran leader of the fire crew and is just months from joining the U.S. Forest Service as a seasonal wildland firefighter.
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Now 22, Santos found the volunteer department and his calling by pure happenstance.
He was enrolled at Idaho State University in 2019, taking classes in criminology while he searched for a career path. Fire investigation piqued his interest, and he started taking classes along that path. Then on an afternoon trip to the farmers market, he noticed a booth run by the Pocatello Fire Department.
“I started talking to them to get more information, and they actually told me that there was a new volunteer fire department starting up,” he said. “Right then and there, within an hour, I was signed up. It just was perfect for me.”
Firefighter Jorge Santos checks and repairs a power blower during an equipment check at the North Bannock Fire Department on March 3, 2021. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com
The feeling of being a perfect fit is mutual, according to North Bannock Firefighters’ Association President Jim Devenney, who pointed to Santos’ leadership qualities and pliability.
“He’s just willing to do whatever it takes,” Devenney said. “That goes for pretty much everybody here, but if something comes up and he’s out there … he just always steps up.”
He’s happy to do whatever the department needs. But he really enjoys offering guidance to the newer firefighters, something he has done more of over the past few months. Not only does it help his brothers and sisters “get their comfort zone up,” it forced him to assert himself both as a firefighter and a leader.
“It’s really awesome. I love it, I love doing it,” Santos said. “It helps me out. Learning it is one thing, but teaching is a whole other aspect. It definitely has brought me up a little more.”
The department will be without that veteran leadership for about six months, starting in late-April or early-May. That’s when Santos’ seasonal position as a wildland firefighter with the Forest Service will begin.
Speaking with Santos about the program offers an excellent glimpse into the life of a volunteer firefighter — and a deep examination of a firefighter who is also currently a student.
The national program he is joining with the Forest Service is designed with students in mind, he explains. Working 40 hours per week, with overtime a definite possibility still leaves him sufficient time to continue his studies.
For many, college courses are more than enough to fill a schedule. But Santos has nearly two years of experience wiggling his schoolwork into a schedule that includes fighting fires, responding to car crashes and hours of training.
There are no shortcuts for this aspiring wildland firefighter. He is ready and willing to put in the work, both with the Forest Service and in his classes.
“I’m really happy to have that opportunity, and I’m ready to do that this coming summer.”