Article by Bill Sessa, OPEC PIO

Photos by Scott Sabicer, OPEC 

Not many people would volunteer for a job that required them to wrap themselves in aluminum foil and chance being baked like a potato in an oven.  But that is precisely the potential danger that inmate fire crews face during a wild land fire.

Fire hike

CDCR Inmate firefighters hike into a training site.

As the weather heats up, inmate fire crews are going through drills to prepare for fire season and that includes practicing how quickly they can unpack a portable fire shelter and wrap themselves in it.  In camps across the state right now, it is a drill.  But on a fire line, it’s a life-saver under the most extreme conditions.

(Note: CDCR has 42 adult and one juvenile fire camp and approximately 4,300 inmate-firefighters on the fire lines.  Working side by side with U.S. Forest Service and CALFIRE crews, the inmates play a large public safety role while saving taxpayers an estimated $100 million a year.)

Made of fiberglass and aluminum, the portable shelters are tightly packed to be no bigger than a small lunch box, part of the 40 pounds of gear that each firefighter carries on their back, in addition to the chain saws or brush clearing tools they use to cut fire lines.  The shelters are each firefighter’s last line of defense if the crew is ever over-run by a fire.

Temperatures inside a wild land fire can range from 1,500-2,000 degrees, five times hotter than an oven baking a Turkey on Thanksgiving.

Although the shelters deflect 95 percent of that heat, it is still oven-like inside.  But crew members are taught that even the slightest exposure to flame is life-threatening.  “Inside, a crew member can survive a flash-over,” said the CALFIRE drill instructor.  “Their chances of surviving outside the shelter are minimal.”

The practice of unwrapping and diving into a shelter, “with feet to the heat”, took only minutes on a clear but hot day and with no flame.  On the line in the most extreme conditions, crews members could be huddled in their shelters for an hour or more.

“Fires can be tricky,” said a CALFIRE instructor.  “They can change direction and come right back at you again.”

Following the dive-into-the-shelter practice, the remaining drills showed how physically challenging it is to fight fires in the wild.

The 14-man crew, carrying backpacks and tools and wearing full turnouts, hiked four miles over hilly terrain on a 90 degree day at a pace that would leave most gym rats behind.

That was followed by the crew clearing brush and creating a fire break the length of a football field, demonstrating for an hour what they often do for 24 straight hours during a major fire.

“It’s important to get these crews from their winter routine to prepare for summer,” said the instructor, who also stressed to each crew that day the importance of “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate and look out for the other guy.”

This season is already heating up to be one of the most fire-prone on record.  By the end of April, the state had already fought 1,108 fires, twice the normal number for this early in the year.

Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. on Monday issued a proclamation declaring May 4-10, 2014 as “Wildfire Awareness Week” in the State of California.

And CDCR fire crews are already in action. At the start of this week, there were 13 crews, 219 Inmates and 20 CDCR staff at the Etiwanda fire in San Bernardino County.

Fire shelter

CDCR firefighters practice deploying their portable fire shelters.

Fire break

CDCR firefgihters cut a fire break.