‘Firefighting without firefighters’: SRJC wildfire resiliency program aims to build key workforce
In the past several years, Kristin “C.H.” Estevane, 33, would often lay in bed awake at night during fire season.
An Air Force veteran and a mother, she has battled PTSD and said she felt helpless about the worsening impact of climate change as devastating wildfires ravaged the West. In 2017, her family evacuated their apartment near Santa Rosa’s Howarth Park during the Tubbs fire.
But now those worrisome nights of wildfire anxiety are largely over, Estevane said.
She has found a way to act on her fears — as one just over a dozen students in the inaugural class of a pioneering new program at the Santa Rosa Junior College that aims to build a trained labor force that experts and officials say is needed to respond to the escalating threat of catastrophic wildfires.
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.
The goal is to promote wildfire resilience and equip a new generation with the tools that will be needed to safeguard communities and landscapes amid a new, more dangerous era of infernos.
Estevane is one of the student crew leaders. Behind her are 300 more students just entering the 3-month-old program.
As someone who loves Sonoma County, Estevane said, “I would just do whatever I could to help, however I can,”
The Wildfire Resilience Program is the first program of its kind among California’s 116 community colleges, said Benjamin Goldstein, SRJC’s Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources. It’s also 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.
“To me, this is an investment in the future,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district has been heavily impacted by devastating wildfires in the past four years.
In late August, the 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.
Gore stressed the program is a step toward changing the way Sonoma County acts to prevent and combat dangerous wildfires, with greater emphasis on landscape work and used of prescribed burns.
“It’s firefighting without firefighters,” Supervisor Chris Coursey said. He called the program a “win-win” and the perfect use of PG&E settlement funds, as it will take care of brush management work, while opening up a promising career path for passionate students.
The grant will cover three years of paid internships at Shone Farm, provide 5 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.
Many of the participating students are just out of local high schools or looking for a midlife career change after being impacted by the devastating wildfires in one way or another, Goldstein said.
SRJC has an ideal place to begin that training, at Shone Farm, the 120-acre spread of crop-, ranch and forestland outside Forestville. It also has a wider network of nonprofit community partners who specialize in ecosystem management and prescribed burns.
At Shone Farm on a Friday last month, a group of program interns were learning how to use wood chippers and chain saws to prep the forest for a prospective prescribed burn.
“Backcut!” yelled Amy Connor, 39, giving a warning-call to instructors and students nearby, as she used a chain saw to slice into a dry, non-native tree.
Bark and wood-chips spewed from the chain saw, which rattled to a stop. Connor paused, adjusting the angle.
“It’s going!” someone yelled, and the conifer fell slowly, landing with a satisfying thud.
The instructors gathered around Connor, clapping and whooping for her first felling job — one step closer in the bid to reduce built-up fuel on the farm’s forest plot, making it healthier and more resilient to wildfire, according to Briana Boaz, one of the faculty leaders.
The feeling was “terrifying, exhilarating and empowering,” said Connor, who is making a big pivot in her life after 18 years working as a restaurant server. Now she has her eye on a land management career, and the SRJC program has given her a new sense of purpose, she said.
Other students say they see wildfire mitigation as an expanding career field.
“The program has given me a goal. It’s given me drive,” said Estevane, who wants to work at the intersection of firefighters, conservation groups and private landowners to make Sonoma County’s forests healthier.