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California Wildfires Pique Firefighting Ambitions Among Fire Science Students

Illustration by Leo Gordon

On November 8, two fires surged across California, burning over 240,000 acres of land, injuring 20 and killing 85 people. One fire, the Camp Fire, took place in Butte County, California, and the other fire, the Woolsey Fire, burned in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Countless firefighters have heroically fought to contain the fires. Meanwhile, at Berkeley High School (BHS), the Fire Science Program is training the next wave of firefighters.

Fire Science is a Career and Technical Education class offered at BHS that explores the profession of a firefighter and the science that explains issues they face on a daily basis. “Fire Science aims to give students an introduction to the science and practice behind fire suppression,” said Fire Science teacher Jamie Robertson.

One of Robertson’s goals for the class is that “everyone will come away with an appreciation for the work that firefighters do, and the culture of fire service.” Students in the class are paired up with mentors from Berkeley Fire Department (BFD) and go on ride-alongs with them. “After several ride-alongs with the mentor I was assigned to in the Fire Science class, I was hooked,” said senior Yael Schwarz who took Fire Science last year. Schwarz has now put himself on the most direct path to becoming a firefighter, and the recent California fires have only made him more eager to achieve his goal. “[They] have made me want to get into the career as fast as I can so that I can be on the front lines, helping as many people as I can, as soon as possible,” he said.

The Camp Fire was the most destructive wildfire in California’s history. It is “horrifying and maddening how destructive wildfires are,” said Lena Bridonneau, a senior currently taking Fire Science. According to National Geographic, the Camp and Woolsey fires were difficult to contain due to heavy winds and rocky terrain. Intense winds can make a fire spread quickly, and rough terrain makes it difficult for firefighters to put out a fire. But why have there been so many fires recently?

All signs point to climate change. Warmer springs and summers have caused an earlier snowmelt. This has led to hotter, drier conditions that increase the chance of fires, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The recent National Climate Assessment Report predicted that the amount and intensity of wildfires will increase in the future due to climate change. To Bridonneau, the recent fires have revealed “how terrifying firefighting can be, more than this class could even show.” Bridonneau also said that after the Camp and Woolsey fires, the class learned about other historical fires and how they relate to fire science.

Schwarz’s favorite part of the class was getting connected to people at the BFD. “I have stayed in contact with my mentor and he has helped me greatly to figure out the best path to the career,” he said.

To decrease the likelihood of future devastating fires, experts say regulations must be put in place to cut emissions and limit the rise of average global temperatures. “Better awareness of fire danger and factors that could decrease fire potential is crucial, and can save lives,” said Bridonneau.