Basic Wildland Firefighter Academy
Mendocino County Office of Education
Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, responds to more than 6,700 wildfires a year. With nearly 8,000 permanent and seasonal employees and a budget of $1 billion to fight wildfires, hiring and training enough personnel are a challenge.
Four years ago the chief of the Mendocino County Cal Fire unit called the Mendocino County Office of Education (MCOE) and proposed a solution: a partnership to train students so they would be eligible to be hired by Cal Fire.
“The idea behind the partnership was to give students opportunities for employment and a good taste of what it takes to be a firefighter,” said Dennis Aseltyne, who was MCOE’s Director of Career Technology Education at the time. “Plus, the program gives our community a local solution to fighting fires.”
Since its inception, MCOE’s Basic Wildland Firefighter program has enrolled 15 high school seniors and 15 adults each year, combining K-12 education with adult education.
The 180-hour course takes place over about 10 weekends, including Friday evenings and all day Saturday and Sunday. There is academic and technical coursework, in addition to physical requirements, such as running up a hill carrying a 60-pound hose. Aseltyne said the program concludes with a complex test that simulates fighting a real-life fire.
Graduation ceremonies for the 30 trainees attract hundreds of community members, Aseltyne said. “There is so much happiness in the community over producing local firefighters. After graduation the first year, the superintendent told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t lose this program.’ There’s never been a downside to this program.”
Training is conducted at the Cal Fire Howard Forest facility, on Highway 101 in Willits. Cal Fire provides the state- and nationally-approved coursework, while MCOE oversees program logistics. Graduates are so well respected that the U.S. Forest Services often calls them offering jobs, Aseltyne said.
Because Mendocino County is rural and covers a large area, students are allowed to stay in Cal Fire’s residences at the Howard Forest facility on weekends to avoid what could be two-hour commutes each way.
“This lets students get the feel of being on a fire crew, and lets them build real comradery,” Aseltyne said.
The 3,878-square-mile county is known for its rugged beaches, redwood forests and narrow, winding roads. Because the terrain can be difficult to navigate, the idea of having local firefighters who know their way around is important to the community.
The course’s 50-50 mix of high school seniors and adults has been a benefit to the younger students.
“Many of the adults in the program are people coming out of the military or volunteer municipal firefighters. The high school students rise to the occasion and meet our bar of excellence,” Aseltyne said. “I’ve worked in education a long time, and I know if you challenge young people they will meet your expectations, especially when you have a common purpose like fighting a fire.”
In the last two years of the program, Cal Fire has offered jobs to every single graduate. Although graduates start as seasonal employees at Cal Fire, those interested in advancing could eventually seek careers as municipal firefighters, after more training.
Aseltyne said recruiting women is a priority. There have been just a handful of women enrolled in the program so far, but they’re working to encourage more.
In July 2016, Aseltyne began working for Mendocino College as Dean of Applied Academics, where he hopes to develop a fire sciences program in partnership with Cal Fire.
Jesse Damian, MCOE’s Director of Student Support Services, began overseeing the firefighter course for the 2016-17 school year.
“This program is about building our own workforce,” Damian said. “We want to build a workforce that stays. College isn’t for everyone, and there’s not a lot of industry here. Sonoma State is the closest four-year college, so students either have to commute or leave.”
Damian says MCOE often collaborates with neighboring Lake County, which was devastated by large wildfires in 2015 and 2016.
“It’s hard for us to compete with the large counties, so we collaborate with our six surrounding counties, which have similar needs.” The firefighter course is open to students from neighboring counties, Damian said.
There is a $500 materials fee for adults enrolled in the program, but no charge for high school students.
Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Warren Galletti now oversees the program that he took advantage of as a principal. He said as a principal he witnessed several students “get hooked into the Wildland Firefighter Academy during their high school years, which resulted in successful careers in the field. I have observed nothing but positive results out of the academy.”
For more information:
• Visit MCOE’s webpage for more information about requirements for the Basic Wildland Firefighter program and this year’s dates.
• The Cal Fire website offers information about careers, as well as useful information on its Cal Fire at a glance page.