Category Archives: Campus News

Fire science program draws in students far and wide

The call that came in early March was the sort of thing Michael Bender had spent months training for.

In a Columbia home five minutes from the fire station, a person had stopped breathing.

Bender, 26, and the two partners who were on duty with him reviewed their plan as the truck sped toward the home.

This was the rehearsed part: One of them would hook up the AED, one would apply the Bag Valve Mask, and one would begin compressions.

What they hadn’t rehearsed, and what Bender could never have prepared for, was how he would feel.

It was “probably one of the most intense moments of my life,” he recalled. “You never know how you’re going to react to someone who’s dying, or potentially deceased.”

The questions that had raced through his head while in the truck vanished the moment he set foot in the living room, where the patient was on the floor.

It had been about eight months since he enrolled in Columbia’s Fire Academy, a 16-week crash course in firefighting, and his instincts were on autopilot. He and his team went into action, flawlessly executing their prepared emergency response. Today, that episode remains a prime example of why he got into this business.

“All of a sudden you might have to drop what you’re doing to go save someone or respond to a fire,” he said. “It’s just being there for someone all the time. That’s a good feeling.”

At Tioga, Sonora and other high schools, and at Columbia College, home to one of the most highly regarded firefighting programs in the state, teens and young adults are discovering the thrilling duties of fire service.

In a region bedeviled by some of the most severe wildfire blazes in the United States, many recruits get firsthand looks at a young age.

At Tioga, which is just outside Yosemite National Park and home to 48 students this year, Kurt Edwards, a graduate of the school, got a taste of firefighting early on and decided to stick around.

He is stationed with the U.S. Forest Service at a station in Groveland, within a few miles of the campus.

He decided to start teaching the Fire Science class when he heard Tioga was no longer offering the class.

“When I went to Tioga in 2004, the class was offered by a retired person through the forest service,” he said. “They’d since lost that class. When I heard they hadn’t been doing that for a few years, that sparked an interest, because that’s what got me interested in the Forest Service when I took that class.”

He now teaches what is called the “Basic 32,” or a standard Forest Service firefighting class, named for the number of hours required. Although you cannot apply to be a full-time seasonal firefighter until you reach the age of 18, his students are old enough to be called up to the station when there is action.

From what they’ve seen so far, Edwards said, they are impressed.

In large part, that seems to be because of lifestyle and travel, if not Edwards himself, a nine-year veteran of the Forest Service. Edwards has traveled as far east as Tennessee and has been to every state west of, and including, Colorado.

For some, the traveling aspect of the job is particularly appealing.

“Being such a small mountain community there’s not that many job opportunities if you don’t get scholarship to go to college or can’t afford to go to college,” he said. “The great thing about this job is you can go anywhere in the US.”

While stationed with Engine 342 in the Forest Service, he would sometimes deploy for up to 14 days at a time while working 16-hour days. The routine was simple and rigorous: rise at six, get a briefing, fight fires, sleep on the ground, and do it all again the next day. As long as it wasn’t raining, he and his team usually preferred to sleep outside.

Bender, who began working at Columbia College fire department this year, said most students in the 16-week Fire Academy and the two-year A.S. Fire Technology degree are from the area, and many come directly or were once enrolled in high school-level fire science programs.

Mike Spear, who is stationed in Tuolumne County and is a battalion chief with Cal Fire, said that many students go on to work with the Forest Service or apply to Cal Fire.

Because both are difficult to gain admittance to, a strong background, or at the least a thorough introduction and basic credentials, are required.

At Columbia, students taking at least six credits can apply to work at the school’s fire department, which is, according to Bender, “the only junior college with a fully-functioning fire department.”

Students arrive from “Boston, San Marino and all over the state,” Bender said. “We had a student last semester from Tennessee, one from Arizona, a lot of guys from southern California.”

Paul Avila, division chief of Cal Fire for the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit, recalled deploying to fight the 1989 Oakland Hills Fire, one of the most devastating in recent history.

“That kind of solidified the reason for why I’m here,” he said.

Spear said he also traveled often early in his career and did work that was both challenging and fulfilling.

But many graduates end up working locally, in one of the many nearly-overlapping jurisdictions belonging to state, county, or city fire departments. In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties alone, said Avila and Spear, Cal Fire has perhaps 300 uniformed personnel.

Local fire departments also utilize dozens of volunteer firefighters, a crucial backbone of Tuolumne County fire departments, Avila said. And with summer approaching, volunteers are needed now more than ever.

As for Bender, the journey towards becoming a career firefighter will continue. He’ll soon begin working with Cal Fire in the Madera-Merced-Mariposa region.

A graduate of Sonora High School, he will continue to live in the area, making the commute to the Mariposa area.

By Scott Carpenter / The Union Democrat

Published Apr 5, 2016 at 01:59AM

40th Wine Tasting Celebrates Foothill Tradition – A Look Back at Forty Years of Tastings

The Columbia College Foundation will host its 40th Annual Columbia Wine Tasting on Saturday, April 9. It’s an event with a rich history. “It was 1977 and the California wine industry was coming of age after having won the now famous Judgment at Paris wine tasting competition against the French the year before,” remembers Tom Bender, long time organizer of the Annual Columbia Wine Tasting. “The growth in small Northern California wineries was under way and the time was ripe for inviting a selective number of them to Columbia State Historic Park for a Columbia College Culinary Department fund raiser.”

Bender was the City Hotel Dining Room Manager and a college instructor at the time and remembers helping with the event that first year. “We had about a dozen highly regarded wineries pour their wines in the upstairs City Hotel parlor for about 50 people that first year. We were off and running! I took over organizing it two years later and expanded it to other sites in the state park.”

“Most the wineries participating in the late 1970s were from Napa and Sonoma and were only a few years old. Early participants included Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Spring Mountain Winery, Clos Du Val Winery, Dry Creek Cellars, Chateau St. Jean Winery, ZD Winery, Domaine Chandon, Louis Martini Winery, and Kenwood Winery. Wineries would stay in Columbia at the City Hotel and enjoy connecting with each other year after year,” recalls Bender.

At the time our foothill wine industry was just getting started and it was just a few years later that wineries from Calaveras and Amador counties joined the festivities.

In forty years the event has grown to close to 80 wineries and features several local food concerns. Tasting sites are spread around the state park and the funds raised still support the Columbia College Hospitality Management Program. The lineup is a mix of around the state and local wineries. Several years ago a silent auction was added and includes wine collectibles and unique winery items. Most years the event has sold out and it is estimated that the event has raised close to $500,000 in total over the years.

Bender still teaches about wines at Columbia College along with several other restaurant related classes and remains closely connected to the wine industry. “The wine business is constantly changing and California is a global leader. And our Sierra Foothill properties continue to get attention. We actually can say we live in wine country,” said Bender.

To purchase tickets and find more information about the 40th Annual Columbia Wine Tasting visit Tickets are $55 in advance and $60 at the door.

Presentation on “New Insights into Human Evolution from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa”

(Sonora, CA) – Columbia College will host a presentation entitled “New Insights into Human Evolution from the Rising Star Cave in South Africa” by Debra Bolter, Ph.D., Modesto Junior College (MJC) Professor of Anthropology and Research Associate with the Evolutionary Studies Institute in South Africa. The free event is scheduled for Thursday, March 17, 2016 in Columbia College’s Dogwood Theatre from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm.

Bolter will present her work on the new hominid species, Homo naledi, published recently in the open access science journal eLife and featured in the October issue of National Geographic. These remarkable fossil remains were recently discovered and excavated at the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, the “Cradle of Humankind.” The fossils represent a collection of multiple individuals who laid buried 30 meters underground, undisturbed until recreational cavers accidentally stumbled on the hidden chamber in 2013.  Bolter’s talk will be an overview of the cave site, the context of the chamber, and a discussion of the new insights on human evolution that this collection of over 1500 specimens provides to anthropologists and paleoanthropologists.  Bolter was recruited to lead the investigation of the immature remains from the Rising Star Cave based on her research on primate life history, which focuses on early life stage of development. She approaches the study of immature individuals through the integration of information from body multiple systems: cranial, dental, skeletal, and from soft tissue like muscle, fat and skin. Her research on growth and development includes vervet and colobine monkeys, and apes – both species of chimpanzees, gibbons and gorillas. Overview articles she has authored lay out her approach to methods of study on growth, development and life history, implications for interpretation of fossil growth and development during human evolution, and more recently, interpretations of soft tissue body composition evolution from australopithecines to Homo.  As a research associate in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Bolter continues to study and work on fossil remains from South Africa.

For more information, contact:

Dean of Arts & Sciences, Dr. Joe Ryan





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A leading international expert in groundwater research, Dr. Ty Ferré of the University of Arizona, will be a featured speaker at Columbia College on Thursday, February 11, from 3-4:30 pm at the Dogwood Forum.

The presentation, part of an international lecture series on groundwater science sponsored by the National Ground Water Research and Educational Foundation, will focus on the latest innovations in modeling groundwater conditions, how these impact public policy decisions and, locally, how these decisions can impact both fire recovery efforts and drought conditions the Mother Lode faces.

Dr. Ferré‘s talk is geared toward geology, watershed, forestry and natural resources students, as well as professionals and interested members of the public.

Dr. Ferré specializes in groundwater studies and the use of innovations and information to resolve ground water conflicts and policy issues. As the featured speaker for the groundwater association’s 2016 Darcy Lecture Series, he will make appearances at colleges, universities, and at community and professional forums throughout the world this year. His visit to Columbia College follows an appearance at Stanford University, and is co-sponsored by Columbia College, the Columbia College Foundation, and Condor Earth Technologies, a Sonora-based geologic and environmental consulting firm which arranged Ferré’s presentation here.

“The Butte Fire damage and ongoing recovery from the Rim Fire have raised local awareness of soil erosion, debris flows hazards, changing weather patterns, and watershed management,” said Dr. John H. Kramer, Condor’s principal hydrogeologist and an expert on groundwater issues. “Condor realized that this year’s 2016 Darcy Lecture topic related to our watershed concerns. Dr. Ferré will describe how computer models are used to predict a watershed’s response to changing conditions and he will address how good science can best assist those making public policy and fire recovery decisions.”

Kramer noted that Ferré agreed to include the Mother Lode in his lecture series because of the opportunity to meet with officials facing immediate and challenging watershed management decisions and community members impacted by fire and drought-related issues.

According to Columbia College Geology Professor Jeff Tolhurst, Dr. Ferré’s appearance is an excellent opportunity for students and local professionals to learn about cutting edge advancements in the field of water management at a critical time of drought and ground water depletion.

“The two big issues in California right now are drought and fire,” Tolhurst said. “We’re pleased to work with the Foundation and Condor, one of our local geo-tech consulting firms, to bring this world-renowned expert to speak to our students.”

Following his talk at Columbia College, Ferré will appear at a community gathering with watershed stakeholders in Calaveras County. That event, entitled “Practical Decisions for Good Policy from Sound Science,” is also open to the public, and will be held Thursday evening from 7-8:30 pm at Bret Harte High School’s Multipurpose Room in Angels Camp. For more information, contact Dr. John Kramer, Condor Earth Technologies, 209-536-7345.

Ferré will also visit two Mother Lode high schools to talk with students about pursuing careers in science.

For more information, contact: Amy Nilson, Columbia College Foundation,

40th Annual Columbia Wine Tasting to Benefit Columbia College Hospitality Management Program

This spring the Columbia College Foundation will host the 40th Annual Columbia Wine Tasting – a benefit event from 1:00 to 4:00pm SATURDAY, April 9 to support the Columbia College Hospitality Management Program. This is the first year the Columbia Wine Tasting will be featured on a SATURDAY.
Guests will savor tempting hors d’oeuvres prepared by students of the Columbia College hospitality management program, enjoy guest food vendors, and sample premium wines from more than 70 wineries, including vintners from Napa, Sonoma, Lodi, Paso Robles, along with a number of local Sierra Foothill producers.
“The Columbia Wine Tasting is a premier wine and food tasting event in the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, celebrating 40 years on April 9th,” says Gene Womble, Columbia College Hospitality Management Program Coordinator. The event provides additional funding for the hospitality management program in the way of grants for students, equipment for the program, and special events. Please join us for a special day in the historic gold rush town of Columbia as we celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Columbia Wine Tasting.”
Reservations can be purchased online for $55 per person in advance or $60 per person at the event as available. Attendees receive a complimentary souvenir wine glass and wine tastings from participating wineries and food vendors. For more information or to make a reservation, visit or call (209) 588-5089.

Columbia College Receives $960,000 State Grant for Apprenticeship Programs

Columbia College has been awarded a two-year $960,000 grant to develop a new hospitality apprenticeship training program in partnership with two major local employers — Black Oak Casino Resort in Tuolumne and Evergreen Lodge and Rush Creek Lodge near Groveland.

The award, just announced by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), is part of the new California Apprenticeship Initiative, aimed at broadening the range of apprenticeship programs available to California workers.

The grant will fund development of the Columbia College Hospitality Academy, a pilot project that will give up to 48 students the opportunity to “earn while they learn” at the resort sites.  Designed with input from the sponsoring employers, the program is modeled on European apprenticeships, blending classroom instruction and on-the-job training in a compressed, two-year program.

The college will receive $960,000 over two years to implement the Academy curriculum, receive approval of the apprenticeships through state and federal Division of Apprentice Standards, enroll students and launch the training at each work site.

“These partnerships with Evergreen/Rush Creek and Black Oak Resorts will be phenomenal training models in the hospitality industry,” said Columbia College President Dr. Angela Fairchilds. “We are proud that our small college was selected as a recipient for the CAI funding and look forward to developing this unique training opportunity for area residents who are interested in a career in the hospitality field.”

Dr. Klaus Tenbergen, Dean of Technical and Career Education & Economic Development, will oversee development and implementation of the Academy starting in early 2016.

“This is a unique opportunity to work with local employers to develop a skilled and educated workforce for the hospitality and food service industry,” Tenbergen said.

Partners at Black Oak and Evergreen Lodge will be key players in the program, which Columbia College hopes can be used as a blue print for other employers interested in apprenticeship training.

Evergreen General Manager Joseph Juskiewicz sees the new program as an excellent opportunity to build on existing momentum.

“As a Certified B Corporation, Evergreen Lodge at Yosemite has a strong commitment to using business as a force for good in the world,” Juskiewicz said. “Since 1992 we’ve operated a Youth Program that has taught important job and life skills to hundreds of Bay Area youth.  With the opening of Rush Creek Lodge we’re excited to see our Youth Program expand, and now this collaboration with Columbia College and our neighbors at Black Oak Casino Resort will take hospitality in Tuolumne County in an even greater direction.”

Black Oak Casino Resort also welcomes the project’s new on-the-job training.

“We are pleased to partner with Columbia College and offer on-the-job training led by our professional team. This is a great opportunity for those entering or advancing their careers in the Hospitality industry,” said Black Oak Casino Resort General Manager Aaron Moss.

Once enrolled, students will be able to complete recognized industry training certificates and earn an Associate of Science degree in Hospitality Management so they are positioned for career advancement. Apprentices rotate through different professional areas at the employer site over an 18-24 month period, to receive comprehensive training in a range of positions that could include a combination of front desk, housekeeping, maintenance, beverage management, retail, recreation and several aspects of kitchen and food service. Training in customer service and other “soft skills” will be incorporated throughout.

Based on employer needs, students enroll in either a seasonal or weekly training model to complete 2,000 hours of on-the-job training, a program of courses and skills certificates, plus general education and electives.


For more information, contact:

Dr. Klaus Tenbergen

Dean of Career Technical Education & Economic Development

Office: 209.588.5142

Cell: 559.994.6434