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North Bay wildfire-fighter training programs aim to build key workforce

After 18 years working as a restaurant server, Amy Connor, 39, is making a big pivot in her life. She has her eye on a land management career, made possible through a new program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Like other colleges in the North Bay pursuing similar programs, SRJC has started a Wildfire Resilience Program, which aims to build a trained labor force that experts and officials say is needed to respond to the escalating threat of catastrophic wildfires.

Connor is one of just over a dozen students in the inaugural class of SRJC’s program, where students take on field courses, internships and a series of classes focused on land management and fire prevention, incorporating cutting-edge ecology, animal grazing practices and forest thinning, said Benjamin Goldstein, SRJC’s dean of agriculture and natural resources.

The Wildfire Resilience Program is part of a growing movement in the state’s university and college system to address the climate crisis with courses geared to jobs that will be in ever-greater demand over the coming decades.

Last month, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors rewarded the SRJC program with a $500,000 grant from the remaining $25 million of the county’s PG&E settlement stemming from the 2017 North Bay fires.

The grant will cover three years of paid internships at Shone Farm, SRJC’s 120-acre spread of crop, ranch and forestland outside of Forestville. The grant also will provide five stipends or college credits for internships with outside organizations, and enroll 300 students in natural resources, environmental horticulture, and animal science courses focused on wildfire resilience, Goldstein said.

To the south, College of Marin is part of a new partnership called FIRE Foundry, according to Alina Varona, dean of workforce development and career education. FIRE stands for fire innovation, recruitment and education.

“We're currently working with UC Berkeley, Marin County Fire, and local (community-based organizations) to support the design and implementation of some comprehensive, equity-centered training that includes wildland fire and paid seasonal work,” said Varona.

The FIRE Foundry program's objective is to establish an emerging science and technology-savvy, community-oriented wildfire prevention workforce by providing job training and skills development for underserved, underrepresented and underfunded youth in Marin County, according to the partnership.

After completing a year with the FIRE Foundry crew, the participants will have earned credits from College of Marin toward a full associate’s degree and/or entry into the firefighter academy.

The program is expected to launch next year, according to Varona.

Heading further north, Mendocino College in 2017 took over the Cal Fire Wildland Firefighting partnership from the Mendocino County Office of Education, according to Theresa Gowan, program director.

The course consists of basic, entry-level wildland firefighting training for people seeking a career with state, federal and local fire departments.

Students must obtain a fire program medical clearance statement from a physician to participate.

Since the program began three years ago, the college has had a 99% student success rate, Gowan said, noting the program fills with waitlists every semester.

Upon successful completion of the course, students receive all certificates needed to walk into a Cal Fire or Federal fire career, she said.

“We’re proud to be part of this partnership and to assist with adding much-needed, well-trained wildland firefighters to the industry,” Gowan said. “Our students leave the program with the knowledge to begin a quality and fulfilling career.”

The next course runs from Jan. 18 to March 11, 2022, she said.

Meanwhile, Napa Valley College also has its sights on a fire-training program, said Holly Krassner Dawson, director, public affairs and communications.

“We are currently exploring grant opportunities that could support the possible development of programmatic activities and access to our Mt. Veeder location,” Dawson said. Mt. Veeder is situated among the Mayacamas Mountains.

Back at SRJC, its Wildfire Resilience Program also has a wide network of nonprofit community partners who specialize in ecosystem management and prescribed burns.

The program also is working to build partnerships with natural resources youth crews throughout Sonoma County, including Conservation Corps North Bay, Circuit Rider Community Services, Sonoma County Regional Parks, and the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps, Goldstein said.

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