Teaching farmworkers to fight fires in Glen Ellen

Farm workers take firefighting into their own hands with Spanish-language training from Fire Forward and North Bay Jobs with Justice at Bouverie Preserve|

“Entra!” a Sonoma County farmworker yelled during a wildfire simulation as she delivered a shovel of dirt to snuff out the imaginary flames her group worked to extinguish at Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen.

“Tranquilo!” said Jose Luis Duce, a fire training specialist, before showing the participant how to toss the dirt in a sweeping motion over the area instead of dumping it in a mound.

From Monday through Thursday, 21 Sonoma County employees joined what organizers believe is the first Spanish-language fire training for farmworkers in California. Each participant received $1,000 for the training, funded by a grant from the California Fire Safe Council.

The education program, organized between North Bay Jobs with Justice and Fire Forward, aims to instill the basics of firefighting and fire management to farmworkers, providing them the skills to adapt to climate emergencies.

North Bay Jobs with Justice is a labor and community organizing nonprofit, advocating for “economic, racial, and climate justice.” Fire Forward is a program with Audubon Canyon Ranch that trains people to respond to wildfires and tend to fire-prone landscapes.

“In our experiences up to now, fire was something that we feared. It affected us economically and emotionally,” said Anayeli Guzmán, a 35-year-old Sonoma County farmworker. “But in this course, we are getting back to showing us that fire is important and not all of it is bad.”

Aubudon Canyon Ranch CEO Tom Gardali said the inclusive effort to provide training in Spanish to Sonoma County farmworkers will help protect North Bay communities with people who already tend to the land.

“We are honored to be able to offer this foundational course to Spanish speakers in our community, which we believe can lead to real careers in the field,’ Gardali said in a news release.

La clase está en sesión

The training has two main components: theory and practice.

Each morning of training, participants are taught about fire science ranging from fire behavior based on “fuels” like dry grass and trees to operational management, and topography, according to the fire instructor Duce.

Some participants had already worked through wildfires in the past or brought cultural experience of fire management, but the educational portion of the training brought new vocabulary to use during disaster.

“In this big group, so many people are realizing how much knowledge they are already bringing. Maybe they don’t have the same technical words,” Guzmán said. “But learning those technical words is building off that knowledge.”

Following the classrooms lessons, trainees armed with axes, personal water tanks, shovels and bate-fuegos (a floppy shovel-like tool to extinguish flames), utilized the information they learned in simulated skill-building exercises.

The participants were broken up into three groups, each assigned a station for different responses to wildfires: fire monitoring, indirect attack and direct attack.

Hannah Lopez, an operational logistics manager of the Fire Forward program at Audubon Canyon Ranch, showed trainees how to use manual devices to calculate and describe fire conditions in a single phrase to communicate temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction of a fire.

At a Bouverie Preserve field, a trainer named Andrea, who declined to give her last name, quizzed her group about the recommended size of a fire line — an area of cleared vegetation to prevent a fire from moving forward — based on the height of the fuel source.

The trainees shouted out answers, “6 feet?” “10 feet?” “15 feet?”

The answer depends on fuel size, Andrea told them.

“If the fuel is 50 centimeters (tall), you need to create a line that is 2.5 times more than that,” Andrea said.

The direct attack station, led by Duce, emphasized the importance of teamwork and communication while fighting a fire. The team of seven rotated positions from water-sprayer, to bate fuego fire-snuffer, to dirt shoveler.

There are three parts to a fire, Duce explained: heat, oxygen and fuel. Water is used to reduce heat and flames, the bate fuegos stamp out oxygen and the shovel is used to cover fuel left standing.

With worsening fire seasons, Duce said, it’s more important than ever to task people with the knowledge and skills to protect themselves and the properties they oversee. Much of the discussion was focused on prescribed burns and how to safely tend fires for the sake of fuel management.

“Fire is an international language, a common ground, and space where people meet,” said Jose Luis Duce in a NBJJ news release. “California … is not an exception, it is actually our responsibility.”

At the end of the training, participants will quality for accreditation as a Basic Wildland Firefighter, which is the baseline training needed to advance to advance to new levels in the field of fire.

“This adds another skill to the work we have been doing, like the work we did in Occidental to tend to the land,” Guzmán said. “This is another way of minimizing fire risk in forest.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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