Not playing with fire: Clovis Unified students learn how to battle blazes

Clovis CA students learn firefighting skills

Clovis Unified students can take an ROP Firefighting class at Clovis East, which teacher Randy Finfrock says prepares them to attend the Fire Academy at Fresno City College.
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Clovis Unified students can take an ROP Firefighting class at Clovis East, which teacher Randy Finfrock says prepares them to attend the Fire Academy at Fresno City College.

For students in Clovis Unified’s ROP Firefighting Technology class, California’s wildfire season is not just a disaster, but a learning opportunity, too.

During the wildfires in late summer and fall of 2018, the juniors and seniors tracked fire crews’ movements and discussed their techniques while keeping notebooks of their own. Last week, they even practiced the single-file march they would use in a wildfire situation on a patch of grass at Clovis East.

“They get a very good primer, a very good preparatory experience to go into the Fire Academy,” teacher and retired Clovis Fire captain Randy Finfrock said.

Finfrock, who retired from the fire service after 32 years, has been leading the class for six of the nine years it’s been in existence. The program is expanding this year with a partnership with Clovis Fire to build a training tower that will be used jointly by students and working firefighters.

The class follows the state curriculum for firefighters, with modifications to keep the kids out of any real danger: though they’ll be able to practice rappelling from the top of the new Clovis Fire tower, the smoke inside will be theatrical smoke.

Finfrock said the program is an ideal introduction to firefighting, with many students signing up because they intend to pursue careers in fire or emergency services. At least 50 graduates have gone on to the Fire Academy at Fresno City College, Finfrock said, and of those, all have started careers in the Forest Service, Cal Fire or a local agency.

But the class is valuable even for students who realize they’d rather do something else, Finfrock said.

“There’s a lot of life skills they take out of the program: life management, working as a team, learning to lead, learning to work as a subordinate,” Finfrock said. “A lot of skills in the fire service revolve around teamwork. You fight fires as a team. Nobody fights fires as an individual.”

Students praise Finfrock for his teaching and say the class begins to feel like family. It’s also a good point on any future firefighter’s resume, according to Buchanan senior Noah Van Verst, because the local academies and agencies are familiar with Finfrock and the program.

“They look at us coming out of (Finfrock’s) class and see a lot of progress and they see a lot of maturity in what we’re doing,” he said.

Nationwide, states are experiencing shortages of volunteer firefighters. But Clovis Fire spokesman Tony Gomes said the real shortage is of candidates with the kind of experience that’s provided by the ROP program.

“It sets youth up to see what public service means,” Gomes said. “We win whether they decide to go into the fire service or not.”

Finfrock said the Fresno region is missing a training facility much like the one found at Modesto Junior College. Updated police and fire academies have long been awaited at Fresno City College, with the most recent construction bond, Measure C, promising $45 million for a First Responders Center.

On Wednesday, the State Center Community College District announced that its board had spent $2.3 million to purchase land in southeast Fresno for a dedicated emergency services academy.

“Even $20 (million) or $30 million could build a seriously good academy,” Finfrock said. “The students deserve it.”

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Aleksandra Appleton covers schools for the Fresno Bee. She grew up in Fresno before attending UC San Diego and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.