California Inmate Volunteer Firefighters ‘like the Special Forces’

By De Atley, Richard K. | Pasadena Star-News, October 3, 2018 | Go to article overview

California Inmate Volunteer Firefighters ‘like the Special Forces’


De Atley, Richard K., Pasadena Star-News


As the flames picked up on a hillside over a McVicker Canyon Park neighborhood of Lake Elsinore during the Holy fire in August, a crew in bright orange protective clothing with “CDCR Prisoner” in black letters across their backs lugged chainsaws and hand tools up a steep hillside.

Above the threatened homes along High Ridge Drive, the La Cima Fire Crew went to work, creating a firebreak between the dry, untreated brush on the upper part of the hill and an area below layered with bright fire retardant, dropped the night before.

The neighborhood escaped the flames.

The La Cima crew, based in Julian in San Diego County, is among the 2,519 volunteers from California’s prison system, along with some county jail inmates, who fight fires on the front lines.

Other inmates provide support, such as staffing mobile kitchens. When those numbers are included, there are more than 3,641 currently in the program, based in camps throughout the state.

The work is dangerous: Six inmate firefighters from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have died in action since 1983. They work 24-hour cycles when fighting fires, under the direction of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – CalFire, the statewide firefighting agency.

The hand crew assignments include tackling steep hillsides where bulldozers can’t go to create the firebreaks that often stop a fire’s advance into neighborhoods, roadways or infrastructure.

“They are like the special forces,” said CalFire Capt. Steve Elenburg said after returning with his crew from an overnight assignment at the Fork fire above Glendora and Azusa last month. The inmate firefighters joined the battle against the destructive blazes up and down the state this summer.

CDCR officials say the work done by the inmates saves California taxpayers between $80 million and $100 million annually. Applicants are admitted to the program after their records are reviewed, and those accepted undergo firefighting training and physical fitness conditioning.

And when there are no fires, the crews work hillsides to reduce brush, or clear flood control channels and do conservation work. The inmates are based at a string of Conservation Camps throughout California, minimum security facilities overseen by CDCR.

“It’s the best rehab program we have, because it deals with life,” CDCR Capt. Tracy Snyder said. “They have to work as a team, have each other’s backs – this is something new to them.”

“We’re a big part of CalFire … they need us,” said Robert Vazquez, 42, who is stationed at Prado Conservation Camp No. 28 in Chino. “Being out there, you’ve got to be mentally ready, because it’s hard work. It’s some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. You’ve got to somehow enjoy it, or it’s not going to be for you. We’re sleeping out on the ground, animals and bugs and stuff crawling on you, so it may not be for everybody.”

Vazquez, serving a DUI sentence, spoke after spending much of the previous day, and some of that early morning, helping to battle the Fork fire. Shortly before talking, he and other weary-looking, soot-covered fellow inmate firefighters had stepped out of their transport trucks at Prado.

Challenges to longtime system

The decades-old program faces issues, including critics of the pay for inmate firefighters – $2 a day, plus $1 an hour when battling blazes. There had been a drop in eligible candidates as fewer inmates with non-violent records are sent to state prisons. And certification restrictions for emergency medical technicians limit the firefighting jobs inmates might pursue after their release.

The hourly wage for a CalFire emergency worker I classification, which includes fire crew members, is $11 hourly, $16.50 an hour for overtime.

The pay for inmate firefighters “can be better, I think. For the amount of work we do, we should get more,” said Derick McGruder, 33, also stationed at the Prado camp. …

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