Ramon Maestas

Ramon Maestas, 23, has shaken the criminal record that once defined him and is now part of a fire crew in Shasta-Trinity National Forest. More photos >>> (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times / August 28, 2008)

As the warm day winds down for lunch, Ramon Maestas, sweating and covered in soot after a morning of work, turns his attention to a man rumbling toward him in a Subaru Outback. He has hippy long hair and a bumper sticker that declares: "Love Mother Earth."

"Hey man," the stranger calls out in a warm voice to the 23-year-old. "Thanks for helping us with the fires. You guys OK? You need anything? You need a ride anywhere?"

"Nah," Maestas says, squinting in disbelief as if the offer were a prank. "We're OK."

The man drives off, kicking up a trail of dust along the back road, and Maestas cracks a wide grin.

"That would never go down in L.A.," he says. "There, they see me and all I hear is click, click, click when they lock their doors."

A year after joining a seasonal fire crew based out of Lincoln Heights that helps gang members start anew, Maestas is still thunderstruck by his dual personas. Back in Echo Park he is Little Ray, the menacing gangster. Here, in the thick of Shasta-Trinity National Forest, he's Ramon Maestas, the heroic firefighter.

Little Ray frightens people when he struts down Echo Park Avenue, white socks hiked to his knees, bald head marked with a tattoo of a woman's red lips, all attitude.

Ramon Maestas, the firefighter, makes people feel safe. He wins strangers over in his dusty green and yellow uniform; they give him free food and say, "Thank you for saving our homes."

When scores of residents flee in fear of wildfire, Maestas charges toward the blaze, hopeful that in time, the flames will cleanse him of his turbulent past. There are moments amid the ash and smoke -- when a stranger opens a door for him or townspeople hang a banner in gratitude -- when he can see the other side, when he can picture a new life as a full-time firefighter.

Someday, maybe, his work, not his gang name, will earn him the respect of others.

"I've never had people treat me like that before," Maestas says. "It's beautiful."

In the summer of 2007 Maestas stood in handcuffs before a judge on a gun charge. His record had trailed him since he was 15, when the scrawny, self-described "knucklehead" was first locked up for taking a high-speed joy ride in a stolen car. He bounced in and out of jail for eight years for grand theft auto, tagging up walls and carrying a gun.

Today, because he is on probation, one more mistake could cost him at least five years in prison.

"If I spit the wrong way, I'm done," Maestas says.

Growing up, he never stopped to think of the future. His father died of a drug overdose before he reached junior high. His mother faded in and out of his life. Uncles and aunts -- some members of the Echo Park gang -- urged him to avoid the streets. So did his grandparents, who raised him.

But Maestas grew mulishly proud of his neighborhood gang, and if anyone insulted it, the kid would respond with his fists.

About a year ago, Maestas' fast life began to thrust him toward the fire line. He was locked up in Castaic on the gun conviction, and his absence was taking a toll on his grandmother. The 66-year-old woman who had stood by him all his life, scouring Echo Park streets for him in the middle of the night when sirens blared, became ill.

Maestas was terrified. A few years earlier, when he was jailed for a probation violation, his grandfather fell sick and died. Maestas missed his funeral. He could not bear the thought that he might lose his grandmother and not be home to say goodbye.

"I felt bad for hurting my grandma," Maestas says. "I thought, 'I gotta do something right. I gotta start something. I gotta get me a career and be a straight square.' "