Youth Firefighters Complete Columbia College Fire Science Course in Pine Grove

Story by Ike Dodson, PIO
Office of Public and Employee Communications

Former CAL FIRE Deputy Chief Lee Winton left his expectations at home in his favorite chair when he ditched retirement to teach a semester of Fire Science 1 for Columbia College at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp in early February.

Sixteen weeks and 17 passing grades later, Winton isn’t sure who learned from whom.

“I knew going in the door that I had never talked to an audience like this, and that it would be a challenge to work with people who have struggled so much in their lives,” Winton said. “But it was a good challenge, and it became a very rewarding endeavor.

“I may have gotten more out of it than they did.”

Transfers and discharges can make the cast of a correctional classroom fluctuate, but 17 of the 23 students who enrolled in Winton’s class stayed the course and etched three units on their Columbia College transcript April 25.

“The results were much greater than I had anticipated,” Winton said. “I was very pleased they hung in there.

“It was challenging for them, but I saw them grow as we worked through the semester. I saw lights coming on in their heads once they were used to the routine and my expectations.”

The challenges were remarkable.

Sixty-six youthful offenders at Pine Grove work with CAL FIRE in state and county parks during the day, performing stream clearance, wild land fire prevention tasks and restoration work. During the fire season, youth crews are involved in wild land fire suppression throughout the state.

Pine Grove youth also combat area flooding and in 2017, put in over 80,000 hours on fire lines and over 200,000 hours of community service.

They arrive at class amid the dogged pace of those camp duties. To successfully complete a college course, youth must demonstrate tireless resolve.

The reward rationalizes the effort.

“The Fire Science 1 class was most beneficial since being a firefighter is the career I want to pursue,” youth firefighter Julian Rodriguez-Ortiz said. “The information and the visitors Chief Winton provided were inspiring and informing. Chief Winton taught me so much and encouraged me to go after my goal 100 percent.”

Those visitors’ ― representatives from CAL FIRE, the US Forest Services and local government ― encouraged youth to stay out of trouble and pursue rewarding fire service careers.

“This class opened my eyes to what is really available to me, since I want to pursue firefighting as a career,” student Alexander Romano said. “Chief Winton brought a variety of people representing different areas of firefighting. The most inspirational was Armando Perez, a ‘hotshot’ from El Dorado National Forest. I identified with his life story and realized I could accomplish success after all the struggle.”

A hotshot crew is an elite team of highly- trained wildland firefighters, tasked to battle the most serious fires in the country. Many consider the crews to be the “Navy Seals of firefighting.”

Youth firefighter Chance Pike said interactions with the hotshot crew member was his most inspiring moment in the 16-week class.

“I started out taking this class with no intention of enjoying it,” he admitted. “Instead, it turned out to be a class that opened my mind to possibly going on to become a firefighter.

“The people and equipment Chief Winton brought to class were exciting and changed my mind about becoming a firefighter.”

Students supplemented the course with study sessions with Pine Grove instructor Judy Levenson three times a week. She also participated in classes and was ecstatic when 17 of the youth completed the course in April.

“I believe the most important thing Chief Winton brought was encouragement and support of these young men,” she said. “He opened a future none thought possible and I’m sure several will pursue firefighting as a career.”

Winton said his curriculum followed the same path he developed when teaching the class at Modesto Junior College, pre-retirement, but he modified his delivery.

“I had to adjust the pace of the class that was appropriate for the students, because you really couldn’t make any assumptions about anything,” he explained. “They have experienced a lot, and their reading comprehension, word comprehension and understanding of basic theories is just different than other students.

“The kids seemed to embrace it, and the support from staff was amazing. Everyone was super supportive.”

Winton said Columbia College has asked him to teach more Fire Science 1 classes at Pine Grove. After the success of this year’s course, his retirement may take another vacation.