Fire Science is one of the dozens of vocational skills offered to high school students enrolled in KCROP programs operated by KCSOS
In the parched backcountry just south of Frazier Park, nearly two dozen students wielding shovels and pick axes and dressed in U.S. Forest Service green and yellow uniforms gathered for their big day.
Dust rose around the crewmembers as they traversed through the hillside brush using their hand tools to cut fire line breaks to contain a simulated fire. Sweat poured from beneath their hard hats and safety glasses — proof of the extreme effort being put forth.
“Swinging” echoed throughout the training grounds, a warning call to stay clear as each student hacked their way through the thick, dry landscape.
For the past three months, the group had been part of a unique program at Frazier Mountain High School — a wildland fire science course — administered by KCSOS’s Kern County Regional Occupation Program (KCROP) in partnership with the high school.
Now, the end lied in sight. They just had to complete their culminating final exercise — a grueling eight-hour affair that would put to the test what they had learned over the past many weeks.
“The entry-level course is aimed at training the students to be certified as entry level firefighters at the end of the program. If they are at least 18 years of age, they can apply for voluntary firefighting positions,” said U.S. Forest Service Captain Ryan Bridgen who helps teach the class and is an alumnus of the program himself. “Some of our students have already received job offers all over California.”
One of those students is Joaquin Ibarra, a Frazier Mountain High senior who has landed a job with the Klamath National Forest in Northern California, where he will start work after graduation next month.
“In 2010 there was fire that came in really close proximity to my home,” he said. “At that point I realized that it takes a lot of effort to get these fires contained and extinguished. It hit me really close to the heart and realized I wanted to be a part of that effort.”
Ibarra said the class benefited him in so many ways.
“Working alongside all of these veterans with the forest service, it really helps you out getting the hands-on experience,” he said. “You learn a lot from the books, but hands-on training, you can’t beat that.”
Because it’s an entry-level course, the lion’s share consists of classroom work, explained Bridgen. As the course progresses, students get lots of hands on training with portable pumps, water delivery systems, team work and hand tools to suppress fires. They were also taught the most important lesson in fighting fires — be cautious.
“Safety is our number one priority,” Bridgen said. “Working in the woods, you have numerous hazards. You never know what can happen. So we are always emphasizing safety.”
To this end, the students were subjected to an “incident with the incident” as a “man down” call came through the radio. A simulated broken leg injury required the students to switch gears and tend to the safety of their fellow trainee as other crews continued to fight the fire.
The crew boss delegated duties as he was trained to do; others used materials they had at their disposal to splint the leg. Up a steep, heavily wooded embankment the crewmembers climbed, carrying the injured crewmembers to safety away from the fire line.
After each phase of the exercise, the crews would pause to debrief and talk about what went well and what could be improved upon.
“It’s a learning experience,” Brigden said. “That’s what this is all about.”
The fire science program, which started in 1998, is one of the dozens of vocational skills offered to high school students enrolled in KCROP programs operated by the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. It is a particularly practical one, since the students who attend Frazier Mountain High are in an area that is susceptible to forest fires in the dry days of summer, and the forest service needs new recruits to meet the demands of the season, which runs May through October.
“It would be very difficult to recruit for the summer firefighting season, were it not for the program,” Bridgen said. “We would have to go to campuses and recruit and then try to quickly train new recruits during the busiest part of the season. This way, the fire science students are ready to come on board when the season starts.”
Since its inception, the program has placed more than 50 graduates into wildland fire positions with state and federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and CalFire. Of those, 33 are still employed, many within in leadership roles.