by Jim Mulligan
Wildfires are not a new phenomenon. For millennia, fires have been an integral part of a healthy ecosystem, though a problem has arisen in the last couple hundred years. People and the structures we build have become abundant, that in turn, has given rise to aggressive fire suppression efforts to keep people and buildings safe. While those efforts have kept many out of harms way for a long time, less fire means more fuel build up; more fuel means powerful, out of control fires. That’s where we find ourselves today, battling an out of balance ecosystem, where fire is unstoppable at times. The Reedley College Wildland Fire Program is working hard to train women and men to combat not just the fires that ravage our state on a yearly basis, but train them to help maintain the delicate balance that our forested areas need to have to be healthy.
Adam Hernandez has worked to build the new program since he was hired to do so in 2019. Hernandez grew up in California forests. He is the son of a forester; his dad worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and that job took them to many areas of the state as Hernandez grew up. Yet, when Hernandez graduated from Clovis High School, he really didn’t have his sights on a job in forestry or firefighting for that matter. Like many eighteen year olds, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do. He did know that he wanted to get an education, and he wanted to do it on his own. After a semester at what would become Clovis Community College, Hernandez set out on his own, moved to Sonora, got a job with a cabinet maker, and continued his education at Columbia College in Sonora.Hernandez really wanted to earn his own way in life and at one point took some advice from his dad. His dad suggested that he work in the summer as a wildland firefighter, earn a bunch of money (wildland firefighters can do with overtime and hazard pay), and continue with his education in the off-season. While it took some tenacity on Hernandez’s part, he eventually got hired on a fire crew and was introduced to the extreme working conditions, excitement, and camaraderie of working as a wildland firefighter.
His fire season job allowed him to earn money and to continue his education, eventually transferring to Chico State University where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He initially had thoughts about going into education, maybe teaching hands-on subjects like industrial technology. While teaching was to be his job eventually, his voracious work ethic and commitment to the tough job of fighting wildland fires landed him an offer for full-time employment doing just that. He spent the next seventeen years as a Federal Wildland Firefighter, the last three years of which was in the less physically grueling position as a manager.
After some time in the mostly administrative position, Hernandez admittedly missed being out on the fires, but knew months away from his young family would cause hardship. Very serendipitously, he saw a job announcement for the new instructor of a Wildland fire program beginning at Reedley College. Cautiously, but optimistically, he researched the opportunity and decided it might be the right time to tweak his career. As it turned out, Reedley College thought he was the right person for the job. He began as a new faculty member in 2019.In just four years, the program has recently added its third full-time instructor. Since 2019 instructors Sam Escutia and Andrew Cremers joined the team. All three men bring years of real-life experience that the sequential program imparts to students. The program is more than just firefighting. As Hernandez explained, “Our program prepares students to be excellent physically and mentally, and understand the skills needed in the field. We run the course like a job. Students need to show up prepared to work every day.” By the time students complete the Reedley College Wildland Firefighting program, they have earned several certificates from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group – a national organization that sets firefighting standards for all federal land management agencies. In addition, students have been instructed in various curriculum including Wildland Fire Fundamentals and Wildland Fire/Fuels Management. Of course, they participate in hours of physical fitness training and, to advance in the program, they must have real field work experience, usually carried out in the summer fighting fires. Because the coursework is based on federal land management practices, Reedley College students learn not only the important aspects of fire suppression, but the integral facets of fire prevention. Graduates of the Reedley College Wildland Fire Training Program will eventually be part of the efforts to bring our beautiful lands back a more healthy balance, and therefore less of a fire threat to us all.
For more information about the Reedley College Wildland Fire program: rcwildland.com.
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