Firefighting youth offenders face full day of training and school

A Division of Juvenile Justice fire crew trains last summer.

A Division of Juvenile Justice fire crew trains last summer.

Pine Grove YCC combines education and rehabilitation with hard work

By Joe Orlando, CDCR Public Information Officer

Their day starts when the alarm goes off at 7a.m. It’s off to breakfast at 7:15, then to work at 8. Aside from a lunch break, they’re working until 4 p.m. After a quick change, it’s off to dinner until 5, and then school starts at 5:30 until 10 p.m. At the end of their day, it’s lights out at 10:15 p.m.

While this may seem like the military, it’s actually a routine day for juvenile offenders at the Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp (YCC). It’s a long day, and a lot of hard work, but for many it’s a privilege to be at the camp.

Training is part of the job

Tom Kubiak is one of three of the camp’s teachers. He’s been teaching at Pine Grove YCC for four years.

“This is an honor to be here, you have to have a sense of trust and these guys have to be up to the job,” he said.

The job is fire training and working side-by-side with Cal Fire firefighters at some of the state’s most demanding fires. There are nearly 70 juvenile offenders at camp, and almost all of them will train and work on one of the four fire crews.

Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp was established in 1945.

Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp was established in 1945.

Jesus is 19 and the No. 1 man on his fire crew. He’s the leader of the pack.

He remembers when he first arrived. He admitted he wasn’t accustomed to hard work.

“I had baby fat, but it’s gone now,” he said. “I like to work and here I feel appreciated. I got hooked being on fires (and) there are opportunities when I get out. I’d like to make firefighting my career.”

It’s also dangerous work. Jesus recalled the massive King Fire last September which burned for a month, and torched nearly 100,000 acres in El Dorado County.

“The King Fire was serious stuff. We were on steep terrain,” he said. “There were large rocks tumbling down all around us. You have to be alert. You could get killed if you don’t see the spot fires. It’s real serious.”

The young men go through intensive training by Cal Fire Captains, overseeing 12-17 juveniles on each crew. Right now, they’re gearing up for spring training. This is the time when they all have to qualify to be on a fire crew. Also, the No. 1 and No. 2 men on each crew are selected.

They will learn about what tools to use, how to use them, what gear to wear and when, and how to deploy a fire shelter within 75 seconds. They will also hike in full gear (weighing 40 pounds) for four miles in 65 minutes or less.

They get paid for their efforts. Since Jesus is No. 1, he makes $2 per day. His No. 2 makes $1.50 a day, and so on down the crew with the minimum being $1 per day. When they’re at a fire, they all are paid a $1 per hour on top of their other set wages. On the fire lines it’s usually 24 hours on and 24 hours off.

The longest any of these guys have been on a fire scene is three weeks. They also get two-for-one time credits on their sentences, which means two days off for every day they’re involved in the program.

When they’re not fighting fires, these guys will work in the various Amador County communities trimming trees, clearing brush and cleaning water drains. There’s always plenty of work.

It’s 5 p.m. and time for dinner. Because of all the physical labor they do, dinner can consist of a few thousand calories worth of meat, potatoes and vegetables to help replenish what they’ve burned off.

When they’re on the fire line, they are given 5,000 calories per day. The kitchen at Pine Grove is loud with all the clattering plates, pots, silverware and conversation. Much like a military mess hall, these guys are in and out in about 15 minutes. There is no time to rest though, it’s time for school. Currently there are 28 juvenile offenders working on their high school diplomas.

A different style of education

Along with Kubiak, who teaches social studies and life skills, there’s Pat Haddeman, who has been there a year. He taught in public schools for 14 years, most recently working with troubled youth at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento.

“I’m used to 30-35 students. Here it’s 5-10 and I actually get to work with them one-on-one,” said Haddeman.

He teaches math and science.

Judy Levenson teaches art and oversees the four young men who are working on their Associate degrees. She’s taught within the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) since 2006. She’s been a substitute at Pine Grove for a year. She knows how hard the guys work every day, and will occasionally cut them some slack.

“I can tell when they’ve been at a fire, and when they’ve been there a couple weeks, they’re worn out,” she said. “I’ll tell them sometimes during class, go ahead, put your head down and rest your eyes.”

Levenson is the only female teacher, and one of only a handful of women who work at Pine Grove. But she said she’s always felt safe here.

“I’ve never had to use my radio. The scariest time for me is walking to my car at night, and wondering if there’s a mountain lion ready to pounce,” said Levenson.

Kubiak agreed.

“I heard of one fight since I’ve been here, and the very next day the two guys involved, along with the one cheering them on, were all gone,” he said.

A recent lesson in Kubiak’s class was a discussion on Helen Keller and empathy toward others. All the students took turns reading the story, and then there was a lively discussion followed by questions and answers. Everyone was engaged.

Continuing personal development

Every three months, the young men are evaluated at a case conference. Attending the conference is the fire captain, teachers, and parole agent to decide how the youth are progressing. The fire captain has a big say in in the evaluation since he spends eight hours a day with them. They quickly learn they either toe the line or they’re out.

Juvenile offender Clarence said the life lessons taught and learned at the fire camp are invaluable, and will stay with him forever.

“This is a privilege, and this place tests you. I’ve learned it’s just as much mental as it is physical, and I’m up to the task,” he said.

Tom Kubiak’s class discusses Helen Keller at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp.

Tom Kubiak’s class discusses Helen Keller at Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp.

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