Female inmates join firefighting corps

A dozen female firefighters graduated fire camp recently held at California Institution for Women.

A dozen female firefighters graduated fire camp recently held at California Institution for Women.

12 from CIW ready to help on fire lines

By Bill Sessa, CDCR Public Information Officer

As summer heat and a historic drought have set the stage for what could be a record year for wild land fires in California, a dozen female inmates from the California Institution for Women are among the most recent to step up to that flame-fighting challenge.

The newest of CDCR’s wild land firefighters were cheered on by future graduates and their trainers from CALFIRE at “Camp New Beginnings” on the grounds of CIW as they received their certificates in June documenting that they had completed the same grueling training program as the male inmates who make up the majority of the state’s fire crews.

It may be a surprise to some people that there are female firefighters, since most of the media’s coverage of forest fires highlights the work of male inmates. But females have worked on the fire lines since 1983, when the Rainbow Camp housed the first all-female crews. Currently, as many as 300 females work on the fire lines each summer, comprising slightly less than 10 percent of the nearly 4,000 inmates housed in the state’s 43 fire camps. Following their graduation at CIW, the newly minted firefighters were assigned to one of three camps that house females in San Diego and Los Angeles counties.

When it comes to battling flames that can rise 30 or 40 feet tall, the work is gender neutral. Armed with hand tools, such as chain saws and shovels, female fire crews work in the same rugged terrain as their male counterparts, cutting containment lines to slow the spread of large forest fires. When they are not on the fire lines, female crews spend their time working on the same fire prevention project, such as brush clearing, as their male counterparts.

Crews from the Rainbow Conservation Camp, for example, recently spent weeks clearing a large stand of Torrey Pines infested with beetles, which increases the chances they would be volatile fuel in a fire.  It was a job that needed a lot more than a weed-whacker.  A CALFIRE captain supervising the crews at the time noted the trees “weigh tons” so removing them was an industrial-sized project.

“The trees we had to take out are big and thick and take a long time to die,” noted Stephen Scatolini, a restoration specialist for California’s state parks.

Inmate Patricia Meyers said she was “excited” for her new assignment and “proud of what I’m doing,” a sentiment undoubtedly shared by her classmates, eager to join the veterans in their assigned camps.

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10 Responses

  1. Karen Thursday, October 13, 2016 / 7:28 pm

    I was on the very first crew. A lot of people didn’t think we could make it. It was a lot of hard work but we loved every minute of it!

    • Beverly Locke Thursday, February 23, 2017 / 5:23 pm

      I didn’t think I could pass that test. 70 pound dead lifts, all the sit ups and pull ups and the running and then climbing that one mountain – infamously known as MF. I felt proud and it changed my life. I was 39 when I trained so all the people talking about the “young ladies”, rethink that line (smile). I still have my certificate.

  2. Theresa Friday, October 23, 2015 / 9:16 pm

    I am one of the women in the picture. I am 49 years old. And I must say that was the more physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done. It taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to. You must step out of your comfort zone to accomplish greater things in life.

    • Candace Thursday, July 14, 2016 / 10:40 am

      Hello, is it possible for you to email me? I need info for my daughter. Thanks so much!

  3. Lt. D. Lopez, SVSP Tuesday, June 30, 2015 / 3:08 pm

    This is a big deal for females and/or males to accomplish. This is a big step in rehabilitation in the lives of these firefighters. They have a lot to be proud of. It is also a proud accomplishment for their family members. Our young people need challenging and meaningful goals such as becoming a firefighter in order to lead healthy law-abiding lives in our communities. I congratulate you all for taking the challenge, successfully completing the rigorous training, and putting your lives on the line to protect our state and citizens from wild fires. Thank you. I salute your accomplishment.

    • Susan Parker Tuesday, May 16, 2017 / 8:18 pm

      My niece is about to graduate and we’d really love to be there for it, but I’m not able to find anything to help me find out if we can. Anyone know?

  4. Mandy Saturday, June 27, 2015 / 11:18 pm

    I am a mother of one of those female firefighters and I can honestly say that I am proud of my daughter! I wish the public knew how these woman are out there risking their own lives.

    • Candace Thursday, July 14, 2016 / 10:39 am

      Hello Mandy,
      My daughter will be going to firecamp. Will you please email me? I’d like to hear first hand her experiences so I can know what to expect for my daughter.

  5. Joy Friday, June 19, 2015 / 10:33 am

    I’m glad these women are contributing to society in a big way and they have been given this opportunity to be proud of their accomplishments. Keep up the great work ladies!

  6. J. Carrillo Thursday, June 18, 2015 / 8:51 am

    Interesting article – I had never heard about female CA inmates serving as firefighters, so it was intriguing that it’s been happening for over 30 years!

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