Gena Barrera was a typical girl at Ranchero Middle School until a unique opportunity ignited a spark of passion.


"I went on job shadowing [with a local fire crew], and I thought it was the coolest thing ever," she said.


She went on to Sultana High but then decided Options For Youth was more her style. Along the way, she became a Fire Explorer at Hesperia Post 152. On Oct. 14-18, Barrera was one of 14 from Hesperia to attend the annual Fire Explorer Academy at Mile High Pines in the San Bernardino mountains Angelus Oaks area. Altogether, there were 230 explorers from 30 area Fire Explorer posts.


This year, the training was conducted by U.S. Forest Service Firefighting experts. They learned fire-up operations, hand tools, hose laying and fire line construction.


"They're learning everything from basic firefighting technique, wildfire behavior, and they're learning to read the weather and identify topographic areas like mountains and valleys," said Daniel Elliott, a media representative who specializes in fire services photography. "That helps them to fight the fires."


The academy thrilled the likes of Barrera.


"I'm excited to learn about how wildland fires grow. It's a lot funner because there's a lot more information."


And Barrera certainly isn't the only female at the academy. This year's Fire Explorer assistant chief is Emily Hernandez of Victorville. Ontario teen Kyle Rugel is this year's chief.


Fire explorer media representative Steven Zamora, who is studying to be an EMT at Crafton Hills College, has been an explorer for five years. The prior day he gave the Big Bear Grizzly newspaper a media tour of the facility. Later, a firefighter network would be making the rounds.


"I'm going to show them around," Zamora said.


In its 18th year, the annual Fire Explorer Academy rotates its curriculum every five years. That means that participates will always learn something new.


"It's unique," said Barrera, who has attended three years. "There's a different thing every day."


That hands-on learning can open doors big and wide for any boy or girl with the drive and determination.


"They can go right into a forest service career," Elliott said. "Saturday will be recruiting. They may be picked up right away."