Igniting passions in the classroom and blazing trails for careers in wildland firefighting and fuels management.
Thirty years ago, Brad Miller, the current Fire Science Teacher at Portola High School, was sitting behind a desk at Quincy High School, taking a similar course to the one he now teaches. During his time at QHS, he took a Fire Science course that led him to join an Engine Crew right after graduating. He stayed with the Forest Service for about ten summers while he went to college and continued after he got his teaching credential. He started teaching at Portola High School in 1991 and in 1993 became the Fire Science teacher, until the course was cut ten years later due to budget cuts. In 2012, thanks to new funding from the Moonlight and Storrie Fire Restoration Projects from the Plumas National Forest Service, the class was able to be re-instated. Now in its fifth year since being refunded, it’s one of the most popular elective courses at Portola High, drawing 25-30 kids each year, some more than once.
The year-long class is broken up into two parts, the first semester focuses mainly on classroom learning, covering various fire ecology topics. During the second semester, the students begin the Basic 32 course which is the nationally mandated course required to become a certified wildland firefighter. The Basic 32 is taught by members of the Forest Service. The lead Forest Service course instructor, Robert Ward, was a former student of Miller’s at Portola High School, now currently working on the Beckwourth Ranger District. Unfortunately, during Ward’s time at PHS, the Fire Science course was not offered. Ward relayed that he is grateful the class is now available to students, stating, “This class is more on the job training than a classroom setting, which gives the students valuable professional development experience. When I was going to school there was nothing that offered such direct career building.” He continued to explain that one of the best parts of the course is that “- it introduces students to a highly demanding field of work in the mountainous, rural environment in which they live.”
Ward met with the students every day in class for three months to go over fire safety, behavior, prevention, and weather; the use of various tools, and many other required topics. Additionally, during the 32 hours of in-class instruction, the class was able to get outside for some hands-on experience. One of these experiences is helping a current fire crew with a prescribed fire, which this year's class will do at the end of May.
The final field day is the second required piece to becoming certified, followed by a final written examination. This year the PHS fire field day took place at Ross Meadows outside of Portola, CA on May 4, with twenty students present. The field day not only tested student’s skills and physical abilities, but it challenged their mental stamina. After spending half of the day rotating through weather observations, firing devices, and mobile attack stations, the twenty students were tasked with cutting fire line up a steep hillside for half a mile. Two-hundred yards from the top, after complete exhaustion had taken over, they were ordered to run the rest of the way up to deploy a practice fire shelter. They were pushed to the max as they fought their way to the finish line. Some students fell behind, while others, determined to surpass their limits and push through the physical strain, made it to the top in six minutes. Two exceptional students made it in only four minutes, exceeding their instructors’ expectations. Once the simulation was over and they could all catch their breath, shouts of joy and hollers of success were echoed down the mountain as the students proudly high-fived, fist-pumped, and hugged.
After rehydrating and taking in the breathtaking views from the top, the class made their way down, still overwhelmed with adrenaline and excitement. At the bottom, they all agreed that as hard as it was, it was incredibly rewarding. Multiple students said that they were pushed harder than they ever had before. Many students in the class admitted that the experience grew their respect for wildland firefighters and gave them a new appreciation for and fascination with fire. “It’s a serious, dangerous, and tasking job, that can’t be taken lightly,” one student exclaimed. Another student relayed that the field day helped the class realize how far they could be pushed and how much they could handle. Everyone agreed that although it was intense, it was well worth it. As one student shared, “The struggle made the success even more satisfying.”
Every student in the class passed the written examination and the twenty that also attended the field day are now certified to apply to work on a fire crew if they choose. A handful of students said they plan to apply in the future, while others, some a few years from being old enough, enjoyed the experience of the class stating, “It’s unlike any other course.” It teaches students how to understand a powerful force and natural phenomenon that is very much alive and active in the environment in which they live. As Miller shared, “We live in a wildland-urban interface, and I think anything that we can do to help students better prepare for and understand fire is really helpful.”
For those that choose to take their certification and apply for a seasonal wildland firefighting job, the course can open up career and employment opportunities. For others who just enjoy learning about and studying fire behavior, the students come away with useful information and a unique, unforgettable experience.
This course would not be possible without funding from the Plumas National Forest Service Storrie and Moonlight Fire Restoration Projects, and the support from the many Forest Service wildland firefighters. A huge thank you to Robert Ward for his leadership overseeing the course from beginning to end, and a big thank you to Crew 1 members, Mike Wintch, Damian Rivadeneyra, Chris Voelker, Aaron Knudson, Dustin Kaurich, John Funke and Brandon Borden who helped Ward with classroom instruction. Additionally, our gratitude goes out to Dan Carroll, Justin Brown, Scott McBride, Joel Bronk, Chris Enriquez, Robert Williams, Mike Townsend, and Ryan Jones who helped with the field day. The class, field day, and opportunity for PHS students could not be possible without their help and support!
To find out more, contact Brad Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.