Graduates of the Rio Hondo College Wildland Fire Academy got off a bus last month at the college’s training facility in Norwalk after a 16-day assignment for the U.S. Forest Service.
The fledgling firefighters battled several forest fires in Southern and Central California, areas which have seen some of the worst fires of the drought-driven wildfire season.
Just six months ago, the graduates sat in the classroom learning the fundamentals of firefighting.
“We taught them about safety being the most important,” said Tracy Rickman, the head of the Rio Hondo College Wildland Fire Academy.
The training served them well as they joined professional crews working a forest fire east of Fresno in August. Trees hundreds of feet tall burned around the graduates.
“We had two scary moments, cheated death twice,” said Erick Perete, a spring graduate of the academy's wildland fire program.
“Someone yelled, ‘Tree!’ as we hear it cracking as it’s falling. That’s when everybody just ran away from the tree that was falling. It felt like an earthquake,” he said.
The one semester program covers classroom lessons in how a fire behaves, firefighting tactics, and working as a team. Toward the end of the semester, students practiced in controlled fire situations in nearby forest land, but the training is nothing like the real fires, the graduates said.
The U.S. Forest Service called the college to activate a crew for a two-week, paid rotation to fight several forest fires that flared this summer. The agency has strained to keep up with the number of large fires impacting the West. So far this year, it has spent $1.2 billion and over half of its fiscal year budget to suppress brush fires.
Twenty-five-year-old Brian Rodriguez joined Perete in the academy's Crew 77.
“Ever since I was a little kid, at the age of seven, just saw big red going down the streets, and I lit up like a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez signed up for the wildland fire academy class because he felt unhappy working part-time at a phone store and taking computer science classes.
Like other graduates, he went through the program's 368 hours of classes and live-fire training, including working in controlled fires with sawyers, those who clear brush with chain saws.
But the real fire was different.
“I guess we were really nervous. Our instructors told us, ‘Watch the hose, watch the hose.’ And then literally 20 seconds later, back-to-back, those hoses got cut and there’s just water spraying everywhere. And there’s yelling. I thought it was pretty funny,” he said.
But not for long; the mood turned when the giant trees began falling.
“I didn’t really consider myself a firefighter until we got on that hot line — alright, this is the real deal, it’s not class, it’s not the academy anymore,” Rodriguez said.
The U.S. Forest Service paid Rodriguez and the other members of Crew 77 for 16 days working 12-hour shifts. The hourly pay is about $17 per hour. The service will hire some of the graduates for full-time work.
For the rest, firefighting will be a part-time, seasonal job. Many of them will hold down minimum wage, part-time jobs in the city.
Rodriguez is going back to two part-time jobs. "One of them is I work at Victoria’s Secret. I’ve been there for seven years, cashier. I work on the sales floor."
The Rio Hondo academy is one of a handful of community college programs teaching firefighting in California. It operates under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. The college also trains students in urban firefighting.
Last semester, the program graduated 44 students who were all hired for full or part-time jobs by fire agencies across the country, Rickman said.
“The last three years we’ve had 100 percent placement. Everyone’s gotten a job,” Rickman said. “There’s a need for these young people to gain this education, certification, training and gain the opportunity to work.”
He said the drought is feeding more forest fires and that’s created a larger demand for firefighters with forest fire skills. He said he hopes to grow the program next year because forest fires are not expected to go away any time soon.