Joseph Charter School students who don’t mind a little sweat and toil to earn their bread should check out Olan Fulfer’s Fire Science class. Fulfer is the school’s basketball coach and physical education teacher. This is the first year he’s taught the class.
Fulfer gave credit for the class to ag teacher Toby Koehn, who had the original idea for the Career technical Education class, and did much of the leg work.
“I really appreciate what he did,” Fulfer said. “He asked me if I would teach it, and I was pretty excited about it.” Fulfer is a firefighter for the Oregon Department of Forestry in the summer with 11 years experience and is generally on the job just days after school lets out.
The class began with 18 students, but later dropped to 10. Digging firelines and running chain saws are not every student’s cup of tea. The class runs year-round and is a block class that takes up two class periods twice a week.
Students have to be 18 or close to it as the class is essentially a firefighting preparation school and 18 is the minimum age for fighting fires. Every student who wants to be a firefighter is already accepted into a firefighting agency. Several of the students are already hired by agencies, including the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
Study material is taken from the same classes that state and federal wildland firefighters take when they’re in training. Fulfer is working on getting the class accredited through Treasure Valley Community College.
So far, Fulfer likes most of what he’s done.
“Were still feeling things out,” he said. there’s a lot of things I really love about how it went, and there’s some things I’ll improve for next year,” he said. “It’s something to get the kids out and about from the normal school setting.”
One of those improvements he’d like to make is working more with outside agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry for fall burning projects. Much of the early classes involved bookwork and presentations, something the teacher called, “Death by PowerPoint.”
“When I can get them out in the field or talking to real firefighters, it’s worth a lot and keeps them more engaged with the class work,” Fulfer said. He added that when he takes students to work with agency firefighters, he tells the agency not to sugarcoat the work or take it easy on them when the work comes.
“It’s not all burning or digging fire lines, but when it is, it’s hard work,” Fulfer said.
On this day, the class is doing a five acre spring burn off on property that belongs to Wes Kilgore, and his wife, Sherri Kilgore, who is the school’s principal.
“I’m always looking for projects like this, and Sherri, our principal, said if we wanted something to burn, we could have at it,” Fulfer said. “If anyone has a bit of anything we can burn, we’re always looking to put some fire down.”
With the help of ODF employees and their equipment, student Steven Beckman lays down a wet line with a fire hose in order to create a fire perimeter as other students start small fires with drip torched that contain a mixture of diesel and gasoline.
The boys are serious about their work but enjoying themselves. The banter is good-natured, and the students and ODF employees get along well. The class and ODF personnel are finished burning the pasture and the ditch in front of the Kilgore home in time to get back to school in time for the bus or athletics.
Senior Steven Beckman said he’s firefighting this summer and took the class because of hearing Fulfer talk about it.
“I really like challenges — that’s why I like to wrestle,” Beckman said. The way he talked, it’s pretty hard, so I’m excited for that. I’ll learn a lot and make a lot of money for college.”
Junior Hadley Miller said Fulfer recruited him for the class. Although he’s too young to fight fire this year, he’ll help Fulfer instruct next year. He likes the class because of the opportunity to be outdoors and he enjoys the burns and using the chain saw.
“It’s a good class to have, and if you apply for a firefighting job, this class looks really good on that,” he said.
Senior Kade Kilgore said he’s heard Fulfer talk about fire science since the teacher arrived here when Kilgore was in the eighth grade and he’s glad he took the class. His favorite part is running the chain saw. He also noted the need for firefighters.
“As the summers get hotter and drier, people need to start filling these jobs, and this class is a great way to get your foot in the door.”
As for Fulfer, he’s looking forward to future incarnations of the class.
“It’s really been a highlight of my year, and it’s going to be a highlight of every year, I think,” he said. “I look forward to teaching it.”