By James Clark
When the forests and rolling hills of Southern California were ablaze, some unlikely heroes stepped forward to combat the inferno: the inmate firefighters from California’s conservation camps.
“At the peak of the firestorms, over 2,000 inmates were on the fireline,” said spokesman Bill Sessa of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CRCD). “In many cases when we have a major fire, prison firefighters and CRCD staff are the majority of the ground crew.”
Established in 1946, the conservation camps are part of the CRCD. The camps employ about 4,000 inmates that go through the same rigorous training that regular firefighters do.
“The fireline is not forgiving when it comes to whether you’re an inmate or not,” Sessa said.
The conservation camps work closely with the California Department of Forestry, commonly known as Calfire, in order to get the inmates to fires as quickly as possible.
Pat Jackson is a lieutenant from the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp located in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“Calfire handles the transportation of firefighters across California,” Jackson said. “Sometimes we are airlifted to the scene of a fire if we can’t reach it [by car].”
The inmates, though still in custody, live at minimum-security conservation camps. According to a CDCR press release, not everyone is eligible to go to the conservation camps.
“Inmates must be physically fit, and are evaluated on their emotional and intellectual aptitudes and criminal history,” the press release reads. “Those convicted of kidnapping, arson, or sex offenses are excluded from the program.”
“It’s a prestigious position, it’s not prison,” said Greg Gutierrez, a Calfire fire captain.
The inmates receive the same training as normal firefighters, Sessa said. “They undergo a two-week physical fitness program and are then schooled for another two weeks in fire safety and suppression techniques.”
“When not on the fireline, inmates are assigned to work shifts ranging from clearing streambeds to building and maintaining parks for states and counties,” Gutierrez said.
“Inmates are divided into five different fire crews at our camp,” Jackson said. “Throughout the week each crew spends a day training while the others work on projects. During the winter, more time is spent on projects, and during the fire season, more time is spent training and preparing.”
Even for the well-trained CDCR firefighters the risks are high, but for some the benefits of being in the conservation camps make it worthwhile.
“Inmate firefighters receive higher wages than the vast majority of prison workers,” Sessa said. “They make about a dollar an hour on the fireline, which is a lot of money for an inmate. They also earn two days off of their sentence for each day on the fireline.”
A greater motivator than money or freedom is the desire to do something constructive, Sessa added.
“This isn’t something that they volunteered to do for time or money,” he said. “Most of [the inmates] are extremely motivated. They want to be a part of something and do something important.”
The conservation camps also offer educational opportunities. “We have educational programs available for the inmates,” Guitierrez said. “We recently graduated 70, all of whom received their associate’s degree.”
He added, “This program takes people that would normally be sitting in an unproductive atmosphere and trains them to be firefighters. They work as hard as anyone else out there on the fireline. So much gets done on and off the line by these crews.”