Clovis News

Clovis firefighting class sparks enthusiasm

Tyler Mahnke watched his stepbrother run out of their Clovis home last weekend to battle a Sierra wildland fire in eastern Fresno County.

"He dropped everything he was doing," said Mahnke, 17, a college-bound senior at Clovis High School. "I want to feel that adrenaline; I want to be there in the action."

Tyler and 34 of his classmates in a new firefighting class at Clovis East High School could soon experience that rush.

The class, which started last month, is open to juniors and seniors from any Clovis Unified high school. Only a dozen California high schools teach firefighting, according to the state Department of Education.

Students who successfully complete the class and pass a test can earn wildland firefighting certificates, which may qualify them to work for state or national park services.

Becoming a full-time city firefighter requires graduation from a fire academy, often run by community colleges. But the Clovis East course could provide important preparation.

"Any exposure that students can have at the high school level ... can give them a basic understanding, and we can move them a lot quicker through the vocational programs," said Richard Christl, dean of applied technology at Fresno City College.

Even if students do not pursue firefighting careers, they may benefit from the firefighting course, said Clovis East Principal Darin Tockey. The school, like others in the district, offers several vocational programs.

"We hope that every student can get on a [career] pathway," he said. "It helps create smaller schools within a school," where students with shared interests are more likely to succeed.

'Reason to come to school'

This year's 35-student firefighting class is all male; they come from four of the district's five high schools.

Next year, teacher Michael McColm wants to add a second level of firefighter training to the class so more experienced students can earn additional certifications, allowing this year's six juniors to increase their knowledge and become leaders for next year's new students.

The only similar program in the Valley is at Mariposa High School, which has taught firefighting for 16 years. It's the oldest high school program in the state.

Mariposa's students become certified firefighters and go through drills or respond to emergencies or injuries at the high school and nearby elementary school, said Phil Whitson, a retired Oceanside firefighter and the program's chief. They still must attend fire academy, however, if they pursue full-time firefighting jobs.

Whitson said 210 former students are firefighters or in some type of medical career. Some, he said, were not top students in other classes, but found their niche in the program.

"They are great at the hands-on work but maybe they are not the scholars, but it ... gives them a reason to come to school," Whitson said.

At Clovis East, McColm's aim is to have a program like Mariposa's. McColm is a Fowler volunteer firefighter and teaches emergency medical technician and medical career classes at Clovis East.

Earlier this year, he secured a retired fire engine that was donated by the Fowler Volunteer Fire Department. The engine is in the shop and students will use it after it's repaired, he said.

'One step closer'

Even with the donation, another stumbling block was funding the class, but the costs were covered through the district's Regional Occupational Program grant from the Fresno County Office of Education.

McColm is continuing to seek equipment donations and speakers who can share their firefighting experiences.

Clovis Fire Department has donated 10 turnouts -- sets of heavy firefighter clothing -- for the class, along with breathing gear. McColm said he also has pledges of equipment from other local agencies.

Clovis Fire has provided some equipment, said Randy Finfrock, the Clovis Fire Department's training officer, who also serves as an adviser to the program. Fresno Fire and Cal Fire also have advisers to the program.

"We want to try and graduate kids with a better understanding of the fire service," Finfrock said. "It's the same thing as giving kids exposure to farming out there."

Much of what is learned in the fire technology class will get reinforced in more detail at Fresno City College, McColm said.

The class gave Buchanan High senior Tyler Ehresman an opportunity to get firefighting training before college.

Ehresman wants to earn his wildland firefighting and first-responder medical training certificates. Passing that training allows him to begin working as a firefighter.

Ehresman, 17, plans to enroll at Fresno State and then join the Air Force as a firefighter before making firefighting -- his childhood dream -- his profession.

Said Ehresman, "This class ... helps me get one step closer to where I want to be."

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