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