Glenn County firefighter named “top teacher”
By Sam Bhagwat
of The Valley Mirror
Willows — He’s the top forest firefighting instructor in California. And Hawaii, Samoa and Guam.
For this year, at least.
And that wasn’t even his day job.
Jess Smith, 56, is a retired Willows fire department captain, honored on Feb. 28 with a fire instructor of the year award from the Forest Service.
Working for 25 years as a consultant for the Forest Service, he traveled around California on off days, teaching forest workers urban firefighting techniques like putting out car fires or dealing with hazardous materials.
“He had a really good grasp of how to integrate our instructors (with equipment),” said Forest Service training officer Bob Bell, a longtime friend, colleague and former student of Mr. Smith. “When we started going to our newer-model fire engines … he had that structural side, teaching how to use those kind of pumps, mentoring our instructors, getting us to where we are now.”
Now, Jess Smith and his wife Jan travel around California for their nonprofit, training volunteer fire departments.
That’s when time allows out of his other “retirement” job, being the Glenn-Codora Fire Department’s consulting Fire Chief .
The couple was attending an annual forest firefighting conference in Reno, standing in the back of a large conference room. Then Mr. Bell, who was leading the session, made a surprise announcement: Mr. Smith won the regional instructor of the year award, one of two recipients.
“I cried,” said Jan Smith.
“And I had to stand (on the stage) when he was talking all about me,” complained Jess Smith, good-naturedly.
“There were like 150 top brass there,” added Jan.
Mr. Bell emphasized this wasn’t something Mr. Smith won for one act.
“He got the award for 25 years of service,” Mr. Bell said. “He has a true passion for safety, and for doing things right. He’s got a true compassion for the student, making sure the student actually understands.”
Asked why he specifically won the award, Mr. Smith demurred, saying it would be difficult to answer that question.
“He’ll turn red,” his wife explained.