Hancock College’s latest class of fire academy cadets gathered at the school’s Lompoc campus Friday morning for a graduation ceremony amid a dense layer of smoke that had settled in and around the Lompoc Valley.

If the sight and smell of that smoke and related ash weren’t big enough reminders of the wildfires that were consuming hundreds of thousands of not-that-far-away acreage, there were also the many empty seats at the ceremony.

“Normally, this stage is a lot fuller than this, but a good part of what we do is supported by in-service fire personnel and, sadly, what’s going on in California is taking its toll on our attendance,” Andy Densmore, Hancock’s fire academy coordinator, said early in the ceremony. “I don’t know how many of you had to come through the mess that’s down south, but there are people that have been called in the other direction to help work on those fires and they couldn’t be here this afternoon.”

Those fires, particularly the Thomas fire ripping through Ventura County, were not far from the minds of many of those who spoke at the ceremony, in which 29 cadets from the school’s Battalion No. 140 received their certifications to join the fire service.

Many of the cadets had already secured jobs with fire departments along the Central Coast, including those from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Santa Barbara County, Atascadero and Cal Fire. Hancock Superintendent/President Kevin Walthers noted in his opening remarks that it likely won’t take long for those cadets to begin their on-the-job training.

“This is always a great day when we have our cadets ready to go off and get into the workforce — and clearly, today, they need you guys to get to work,” Walthers said. “So, we’re very excited to add some more firefighters that can help out.”

Those thoughts were echoed by guest speaker Frank Ortiz, a retired Santa Maria fire chief who is the director of Hancock’s fire, Environmental Health and Safety, and EMS programs.

“As important as this day is for you,” Ortiz told the cadets, “we need to stop and take notice about a few things that are going on around us. Right on our doorstep, the profession that you are working to enter is hard at work and stretched to the max in terms of protecting life and battling blazes in our own region and throughout the state of California.

“As you know, several of your fire academy instructors are part of that effort,” he continued. “Those fire professionals who also serve as instructors at our college have done an excellent job in getting your preparation on track for entering this noble profession.”

To make it to graduation, each of the cadets completed more than 620 hours of classroom and field instruction at Hancock’s Public Safety Training Complex in Lompoc. Prior to receiving their certificates of completion, the cadets showed their skills to friends, family members and other attendees by performing live demonstrations in and around the complex’s six-story burn tower.

During the demonstrations, the recruits fought through the smoke already in the air and ran fire hoses, doused car and structure fires, performed extrications and climbed ladders to gain roof access, among other proficiencies.

Brandon Gariffo, a 42-year-old father of three, was selected as the president of the class. As Gariffo delivered his address, he broke down in tears at times as he reflected on the support of his family and the bonds created among the members of the class and with the staff at the academy.

“You told us in the beginning you were gonna put greatness in front of us,” Gariffo said as he turned toward Densmore. “And you did. You did just that. We learned a lot from you and everyone you put in front of us.

“I appreciate you, sir,” he added. “You’re not just putting out strong cadets; you’re putting out a better quality of life.”

Before sending the cadets out on their own, Ortiz offered a bit of life advice that he said he hoped each of them would carry with them throughout their lives. That advice was that “learning is a lifelong experience.”

Ortiz told the students that the bar to enter the workforce as a firefighter has risen significantly over the past 25 years, and he encouraged them to continue their schooling as they gain experience on the job. He also advised them to be involved in their respective communities as they move forward.

“A successful career is based on taking your education and experience and putting it to good use,” he said. “You gain experience one call at a time, one shift at a time, (and) one significant incident at a time. However, your education is something you have to continue to work at.”

Early in Ortiz's address, he paid tribute to Linual White, a former Lompoc fire chief who died Wednesday at age 62 following a bout with cancer.

“Chief White was a longtime colleague of mine and several of us in this room," Ortiz said before leading a moment of silence. "He will be missed. He was a good man.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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