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Students at rural community college can earn a bachelor’s and help prevent wildfires

The Dixie Fire, visible from Highway 70, along the Feather River on Wednesday, July 20, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
The Dixie Fire, visible from Highway 70, along the Feather River on Wednesday, July 20, 2021.

In California’s far northeast Plumas County, community college students will soon have a rare opportunity: earn a bachelor’s degree and learn skills that could help protect their rural region from destructive wildfires.

The county’s only college, Feather River College, recently won approval to launch a bachelor of science program in ecosystem restoration and applied fire management. The college’s leaders say the program will fill a critical need in a part of the state that has been devastated by wildfires, including the 2021 Dixie fire, but can’t find enough qualified workers to help restore the area and limit the damage from future blazes.

Officials hope that the first group of about 25 students will start taking classes required for the degree this year. The program’s coursework will feature a mix of classroom and field-based learning.

The program is the latest of several baccalaureate degrees to get approved across California’s community college system, which traditionally awards associate degrees. Assembly Bill 927, signed into law in 2021, permits the system to approve up to 30 bachelor’s degree programs annually, so long as they are focused on career and technical training and don’t duplicate degrees offered by California State University or University of California.

In the past year, nine of those degree programs have been approved, bringing the total to 24 baccalaureate offerings at community colleges across the state. Fifteen others were established in 2016 as part of a statewide pilot program, including one in equine and ranch management at Feather River. Other programs include industrial automation at Bakersfield College, dental hygiene at West Los Angeles and cyberdefense at San Diego City College.

The programs are designed to meet workforce needs as well as expand access to bachelor’s degrees to students who otherwise might not be able to earn one because of distances and other hurdles.

The new program at Feather River could be especially game-changing for its students because there are no CSU or UC campuses within 80 miles of Quincy, where Feather River is located.

“There’s a 31,000 square mile High Sierra that is not served by any CSU or UC,” Kevin Trutna, superintendent and president of Feather River College, said in an interview. “These students should have access to a degree that is meaningful to them.”

The board of governors for the statewide community college system last month gave the green light to the Feather River program, doing so over formal objections from CSU’s chancellor’s office. CSU argued the program duplicates degrees already offered by CSU, including a planned degree in applied fire science at Cal Poly Humboldt. CSU does not have any further avenue to appeal the approval but believes it violates the spirit of AB 927.

Feather River officials say its program is not duplicative. Students will be trained specifically to manage and protect the Sierra Nevada, which Trutna said is much different than other mountain ranges and forests in the state, such as the coastal redwood forests in Humboldt.

One of the program’s specializations will be in preparing students to manage prescribed fires, which are fires set intentionally that are designed to help the ecosystem and are carefully managed. Among other benefits, prescribed fires help minimize destruction from unwanted wildfires by preventing overgrowth in the forests.

For Hayden Lampe, a Quincy resident, the new program will give her the chance to get a bachelor’s degree that she has coveted for years.

Lampe completed two associate degrees from Feather River in 2020 — one in environmental science and another in outdoor recreation leadership — and planned to transfer in 2021 to a four-year university. She considered four universities: Oregon State University-Cascades, Western Colorado University, University of Nevada Reno and Chico State University.

She was especially interested in an environmental science program at OSU-Cascades, but when she made the trip up north to tour the campus, she realized it was out of her price range.

“We started looking into housing, and the best options we were able to find were studio apartments close to campus, but they were upwards of $2,000 a month,” Lampe said. That was a big difference from Quincy, where she and her partner have a monthly rent of $700 and she can walk to class.

Housing near Western Colorado was similarly expensive, ruling out that university. She considered commuting to Reno or Chico, but those options presented their own challenges. The drive to Reno in the winter months is “pretty dangerous and unpredictable,” Lampe said. As for Chico, the main highway from Quincy, Highway 70, is often closed because of mudslides.

Lampe said the entire process left her demoralized, making her feel like pursuing a bachelor’s degree was out of reach.

“But when I heard about the potential for this degree to happen at Feather River, I was so excited,” she said. “I was telling everybody that I know. It gave me a lot of hope and kind of reinvigorated my motivation to continue my education.”

Besides classroom sessions, the new program’s field-based learning could include trips, such as ones to meet U.S. Forest Service workers at the nearby Feather River Ranger District. Students will also learn how to use such tools as mapping equipment like ArcGIS, drones and equipment to measure trees to gain information about a forest’s health.

Students in the program will also get various National Wildfire Coordinating Group certifications.

“Our bachelor’s degree is going to allow people to move up into other jobs other than hanging off the back of a firetruck and putting out fires,” Trutna said.

Lampe is among a growing number of California students relying on their local community college to earn a bachelor’s degree. In the first three cohorts of students who enrolled in a baccalaureate program at a California community college beginning in 2016, 790 of them graduated, according to a study by the Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research at UC Davis. The two-year graduation rate for students who started the programs was 67%. The three-year graduation rate was 78%.

About 56% of students who have graduated those programs said they wouldn’t have pursued a bachelor’s degree if it hadn’t been offered at their local community college, according to the Wheelhouse Center.

The program at Feather River is also good news for the region and its employers, which have trouble finding workers with bachelor’s degrees but desperately need them to help restore the land.

Within the past five years, almost 60% of the Feather River watershed has been damaged by wildfires. The Dixie fire also essentially wiped out Greenville, one of the towns in Plumas County.

“It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal the Dixie fire was,” said Michael Hall, district manager of the Feather River Resource Conservation District. “When we lose one of our four biggest towns, that’s a huge impact on the population and where people can live and their jobs and livelihoods.”

The key now is to prevent future wildfires from being as destructive, but that’s difficult without a strong workforce. Hall said his organization has trouble finding and retaining qualified employees for its fire recovery and reforestation projects. The conservation district isn’t alone in that. Trutna predicted that if he had 25 graduates from the new bachelor’s degree program, Cal Fire would be willing to hire them all immediately.

One of the challenges with finding workers is that the Feather River region “is a tough place to live,” Hall said.

“We don’t have a ton of amenities. It’s big and forested, and then it burns. You’ve got to deal with that, and you have to deal with winter,” he said.

The new program at Feather River could help fix that problem by training locals, who already have “skin in the game,” Hall said.

That’s the case for Lampe, who has now lived in Quincy for five years and has seen firsthand the destruction caused by the wildfires.

Lampe plans to enroll in the new program this year and, once she graduates, expects the degree will open new doors for her. To this point, she’s mostly worked seasonal jobs, including doing fieldwork with the Feather River Resource Conservation District. But once she earns her bachelor’s degree, she plans to apply for project management positions in forestry.

“You can’t really go anywhere in the county without seeing a fire scar or driving through an area where homes were lost. Having an emotional attachment to this place, it can get kind of heartbreaking,” Lampe said. “But I think, especially after seeing all of that, it elevates the motivation and the drive to do something about it and be in this field of work and actively try to help restore and repair the area.”

Michael covers higher education. Prior to joining EdSource, he was a reporter in Washington, D.C. He received a B.A. in journalism from Syracuse University.
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