August 26, 2022

Forged by fire and faith

Young firefighter’s trust in God continues to be inflamed, even in life-threatening moments

Indianapolis resident Joe Ybarra spent more than a year fighting wildfires in Idaho and Nevada, a time when he relied on his faith in God and the power of the rosary to protect him. (Submitted photo)

Indianapolis resident Joe Ybarra spent more than a year fighting wildfires in Idaho and Nevada, a time when he relied on his faith in God and the power of the rosary to protect him. (Submitted photo)

14th in an occasional series

(Editor’s note: In this series, The Criterion is featuring young adults who have found a home in the Church and strive to live their faith in their everyday life.)

By John Shaughnessy

Joe Ybarra reached for his rosary as the wildfire raged across the Idaho mountainside, threatening the lives of him and the seven other firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service.

As the fire rushed toward his team, Ybarra fingered the rosary beads and prayed that he would be safe so he could return one day to his family and friends in Indiana.

At first, the threat had been minimal when the fire on Scarface Mountain began on Aug. 7, 2021. After arriving on the scene by helicopter, Ybarra and the seven other firefighters noticed that the fire appeared to be dying out after scorching about 15 acres, thanks to helicopter crews pouring down water on the mountain.

“The next day, we started work around 7 in the morning, building a line around the fire to try to contain the remnants of it,” Ybarra recalls.

Yet the wind kicked up a short time later, feeding the smoldering fire, leading it to roar again—and the combination of fire and smoke was so dense it made it hard for the firefighters to see, forcing them to rush back to their base camp.

“At base camp, we saw the fire rapidly grow within a matter of seconds, from the bottom of a gully to the top of a ridge,” Ybarra says. “It was then that the decision was made to abandon base camp and retreat to a safer location a few ridgetops over. While retreating, we observed that the fire had made its way to where our base camp was.”

In that moment, the group’s commander searched for a safe spot for the firefighters to stay while instructing Ybarra and the others to get their fire shelters ready— a safety device that can help firefighters survive for more than an hour in non-burning areas surrounded by intense fire.

“We had practiced deploying fire shelters a few times as a part of our basic training, but the prospect of possibly having to use them had me worried because they are typically used as a last resort,” Ybarra says.

“I remember asking myself what I was doing out there, 26 hours away from family and everything I know. As my mind began racing, I grabbed my radio, a water bottle, my fire shelter and my rosary as we got to our safe spot and waited to see what the fire was going to do next. When I found my rosary, it was then when my racing mind stopped.”

Seconds later, helicopters arrived overhead, most of them dumping water on the fire to stop it from rushing toward Ybarra and his team. When a helicopter swooped down to shuttle them to safety, one thought filled Ybarra’s mind.

“I felt God had answered my prayers.”

‘Through the good, through the bad’

The Scarface Mountain fire would continue to rage for nearly four weeks, scorching nearly 88,000 acres, before it was contained on Sept. 2, 2021. Still, the experience of facing it didn’t dampen Ybarra’s desire to be a firefighter. It also continued to inflame the 32-year-old’s trust in God.

In the year since that life-threatening experience, Ybarra has become a rookie firefighter for a fire department in an Indianapolis area community. He is also a member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

And his journey to both those points in his life has not only been marked by a series of twists and turns, it has also been forged by fire and faith.

The beginning of his faith journey always leads back to his mother, who faced her own life-threatening situation in her homeland of Nicaragua when a civil war and revolution raged across that Central American country in the 1970’s and ‘80s.

After leaving her homeland to come to the United States, she married and gave birth to Ybarra, instilling her Catholic faith—and her belief in the power of the rosary—in him.

“She prayed the rosary, through the good, through the bad,” says Ybarra, the older of her two sons. “She always remained faithful. It was a constant in her life, something that guided her decision-making and heavily influenced her values. A lot of people in the Church in the Latino community looked to her. ‘How have you kept your faith through all these years, all these experiences?’ She said she found power through God.”

Similar to many young adults, Ybarra lost that powerful connection with God during his first few years of college at Indiana State University. Then came a faith-changing invitation from a fraternity brother to attend Mass at St. Benedict Church in Terre Haute. The sound of the choir filled Ybarra with joy, so he approached the choir director about joining it.

“He said, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” Ybarra recalls. “From there, they were very welcoming to me. At that point, it was something that I wasn’t doing with my family. It was something I was doing of my own accord.”

Ever since, he’s been seeking God more and more in his life.

“My relationship with him is pretty strong right now,” he says. “Initially, I would go to God only when there was bad stuff that was going on. Now it’s more that I’m talking with him daily, whether it’s through music, through the rosary, even through just taking a walk. Through the good, through the bad, that conversation with him is almost like a constant daily thing now.”

Ybarra relied on those conversations when he made a dramatic change in his life.

‘I wanted to have a free soul’

A saxophone player, Ybarra majored in musical education as an undergrad at Indiana State, where he also earned a master’s degree in higher education administration.

“I wanted to help young adults going into college and turn them into well-rounded, functioning adults throughout their journey.”

Yet as a young adult nearing 30, Ybarra didn’t feel well-rounded or fulfilled as he worked at a stressful desk job at Purdue University, “doing all these reports, reporting to eight bosses.”

He began volunteering as a firefighter for a nearby township, and he had a revelation.

“I loved it,” he says, the joy radiating on his face. “It’s not just the fire runs. It’s the medical runs, the car crashes, the public outreach and education.

“I wanted to have a free soul, and I decided to leave the world of education and go into firefighting. I like helping others in the worst times of their lives. And I thought there was nothing better than being out W.est, in the wilderness, fighting fires. I said this is going to be a hard, manual reset—emotionally, mentally, spiritually. It’s going to help me get my head on straight.”

He started by working for Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management from May of 2020 to December of 2020.

“It was great. My ranger station was actually an oasis in the desert. They called it Paradise Valley because there was such greenery at the foot of the mountains. It was a lot of working in nature and time for personal training. Making sure we were in tip-top shape. Lots of running, lots of hiking, and lots of times in the wilderness. We had lots of patrols in the mountains. Did a lot of project work with chain saws. Clearing out dead trees that could be hazardous to hikers and people hunting.”

In 2021, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service from May to September, an experience that included the reality of seeing a raging fire—and his life—flash before him on Scarface Mountain.

In nature’s beauty and its fury, Ybarra always found one constant.

“Being in that beauty, just being surrounded by nature, you could definitely feel God’s presence there,” he says. “You just felt immersed in his creation and having him around you at all times—even when the wind is blowing through the trees.

“On the opposite side, during the fires, you definitely felt God was there, too.”

Ybarra also carried another constant with him.

‘Hey, God, it’s me again’

“One of the things I’ve always had in my pocket was a rosary. I always had it on me whenever I was on assignment. There are a few times, especially if I have 100 pounds of equipment on my back, and we’re climbing a hill, and I’m like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I so far away from home?’ And then I say, ‘This is God’s will. He has a plan for me. And I just have to listen to him.’ And then you actually see the good you’re doing.

“Once everything is under control, you see the impact in the community. They’re super thankful you’re there. You see this destruction could be so much worse, but it isn’t.”

Ybarra has continued to keep his rosary with him every day since he started as a firefighter for an Indianapolis area community in May.

“The majority of it has been medical runs so far, including overdoses, heart attacks and strokes,” he says. “We’ve had a few car crashes, and a couple of times we’ve rode with people to the hospital. They were in a lot of pain, a lot of distress, and we managed to calm them down and calm their families. By the time we hand them over at the hospital, they’re saying, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you for being so calm. Thank you for being with me.’ ”

He has the same gratitude for the presence of God in his life. He starts each day in prayer.

“It’s a mindset, just calming everything down. It’s just me and God during that time. It’s like ‘Hey, God, it’s me again.’

“My relationship with him has definitely had a huge impact. Like for my mom, I can see how it influences my decision-making, how it influences my trajectory in life. Through my faith, I’ve been able to have a lot of positive experiences and meet a lot of amazing people. It’s been a blessing in my life.” †

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