By OPEC Staff

The history of CDCR’s fire camps scattered throughout the state dates back to the opening of Camp Rainbow in Fallbrook in 1946. But the history of state prison inmates being housed in camp settings and working outside dates back years, even decades earlier.

For a more complete and entertaining history of CDCR camps, click here.

In capsule form, it traces the lineage of the fire camps back nearly a century to 1915 when the first permanent state prison road camp was opened. Within a decade, more than 10 percent of the male state prisoners in California were housed not in the state’s two prisons – San Quentin and Folsom – but in road camps.

Legget Valley-First State Prison Camp c 1917

Legget Valley – first state prison camp 1917.


The last of the state’s road camps closed in 1974.

During World War II, many of the fire-fighting forces of the Division of Forestry, now the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, (CALFIRE) were on the front lines. CDCR stepped up with inmates occupying 41 temporary camps to augment regular firefighters.

Following the establishment of Camp Rainbow, more forestry or conservation camps, as they came to be known, were opened during the 1940s and 1950s. Camp Rainbow was a leader in another area. Starting in 1983, Rainbow became home to several crews of female inmate firefighters.

There are 42 adult and two Division of Juvenile Justice conservation camps. CDCR jointly manages 39 adult and juvenile camps with CALFIRE and five adult camps with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Nearly 4,000 offenders participate in the Conservation Camp Program, which has approximately 200 fire crews. Adult male inmates receive firefighting training at the California Correctional Center in Susanville, Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo or California Rehabilitation Center in Norco. Female inmate firefighters receive training at California Institution for Women in Corona.

The program provides an able-bodied, trained work force. In an average year, the inmates spend a total of about 3 million hours fighting forest fires or responding other emergencies, such as floods and earthquakes.

The crews also contribute about 7 million total hours working on conservation projects on public lands and provide labor for local community service projects. Projects include clearing fire breaks, restoring historical structures, park maintenance, sand bagging / flood protection, clearing fallen trees and debris.

Adult inmates assigned to the camps are carefully screened.  Only minimum custody inmates – both male and female – may participate.  To be eligible, they must be physically fit and have no history of violent crimes, as defined by the California Penal Code.

As Realignment has reshaped the prison population, with many lower-level offenders being sent to county jails, counties have been offered the opportunity to contract with CDCR for spaces at conservation camps for county inmates. Riverside County recently became the first county to send county inmates to a CDCR camp under such a contract.

 Gallery compiled by CDCR staff photographer Eric Owens

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