More Than 100 Oregon College Students Are Fighting Out-of-Control Wildfires

Nearly 200 students and faculty members in Oregon, including over 100 students from one college, are currently helping to fight the state's ongoing wildfires, school officials have told Newsweek.

Several colleges and universities in the state offer programs that see fire science students undergo training in firefighting and emergency medical services.

Many students at Central Oregon Community College (COCC) in Bend were reported to have joined the state's firefighting efforts this summer to help pay for college, according to Paula Simone, COCC's Program Director for Structural Fire Science & Wildland Fire Science.

Speaking to Newsweek, Simone confirmed "more than 100 students [are] out on the fire lines, including more than 50 from our fire science program. We have students studying aviation and health careers currently fighting fires, as well as students who are members of the National Guard.

COCC also reported six faculty members are currently fighting the fires, including faculty from the school's fire science and EMS programs.

Simone added: "Please note that, with everyone out fighting fires, it's impossible to get exact numbers [of students fighting fires] because students aren't answering emails or texts, they're on the frontlines of the disasters themselves."

Speaking to Newsweek, the Fire Science Coordinator at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Andy Hatfield, said: "There are four [students] that have been helping in Glide, two have been helping with the fires near Sutherlin."

The four student firefighters helping to combat the blazes near the Glide area include one from Douglas County Fire District #2, while three were reported to be from the Sutherlin Fire Department. The two students helping with the Sutherlin fires are also from the Sutherlin Fire Department, Hatfield confirmed.

Portland Community College was reported to have "60 staff and students connected to our Fire Protection Technology Program working on these fires at various levels and responsibilities," a spokesperson for the school confirmed to Newsweek.

Over at Clatsop Community College, at least one instructor was said to be due to lead the efforts against the ongoing Gearhart fire.

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the school said: "The information that I have heard from the fire science department so far is that we have an instructor who will start working remotely so he is able to become the lead for Gearhart fire as other firefighters leave the area."

"As for students, we have not heard from any, yet, but will know more as we get into next week," the spokesperson added.

Blue Mountain Community College (BMCC) in Pendelton was reported to have "several students who are on the fire lines," according to BMCC President Dennis Bailey-Fougnier.

Speaking to Newsweek, Bailey-Fougnier said: "At this point we have heard that we have several students who are on the fire lines, but we do not have contact with them and cannot confirm that they are indeed on the front lines.

"Blue Mountain Community College is on the quarter system and does not start fall classes until September 23. If the students are still fighting fires when classes start, we will be waiving fees and attendance for them until they can return. Then we will do whatever we can to help them catch up," he added.

Students at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay were currently reported to be working only with local fire departments. "We don't have any [students] out on the wildfires. Of course, that could change," a spokesperson for the school told Newsweek.

Last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown noted: "A number of our firefighters are scheduled to return to their universities and colleges. I've asked both our universities and our community colleges to work with students who are trained as firefighters so that they can continue to fight fires and not be penalized for missing school."

"Oregon's universities and community colleges, their faculty and staff, are valuable partners in this effort and I thank them for their flexibility," she added.

Several colleges, in addition to BMCC, have confirmed they will grant exemptions or flexibility for student firefighters returning to school.

A spokesperson for Portland Community College told Newsweek: "The fire program attempts to work with our students any time they miss classes due to emergencies. It is not uncommon for us to have students miss class due to a fire or other emergency, especially, during wildland season when they can be deployed for up to two weeks.

"This is true for all students that might be assisting with the wildfires, including Fire Protection, EMS or any program really, as some students in the Oregon National Guard were called up to assist. This is our policy every year, but especially this year," the spokesperson added.

COCC added it will "of course honor this [the governor's] request to excuse our firefighting students from the start of term, and be as flexible as we can be without jeopardizing their education."

"This flexibility is standard practice for the college; for example, we also forgive our military reserves/National Guard students' absences if they are called up, and—during prolonged absences—work with these students to adjust their schedules, ensure dropped classes do not show up on their transcripts, and/or provide them with refunds as necessary," Simone told Newsweek.

Southwestern Oregon Community College also confirmed: "Our instructors and student services folks work diligently to keep students in school so I predict that if that particular situation arose we would do what we could to accommodate any special circumstances."

There are currently reported to be at least 87 "active large fires," in the country, 13 of which are in Oregon. The 87 fires have burned over 4.6 million acres across 10 states, as of Monday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Update 9/16: This article has been updated with comment from Central Oregon Community College, Southwestern Oregon Community College and Portland Community College.

Oregon firefighter Riverside Fire September 2020
A firefighter surveys a field near the Riverside Fire on September 13 in Glen Avon, Oregon. Over 100 student firefighters are helping to the battle the ongoing wildfires across the state. Nathan Howard/Getty Images