Youth offenders lead tours, staff discuss roles at camp

Story, photos by Joe Orlando, CDCR Public Information Officer

Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp (YCC) recently recognized its 70th anniversary with an open house.

Dozens of residents from around Amador County made the trek to the camp to learn about day-to-day operations, talk to administrators and correctional youth and tour the facility.

Pine Grove opened in 1945 and is the oldest fire camp in continuous operation in the country.

Pine Grove YCC staff members discuss operations with those on a tour.

The camp is operated jointly by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

In one of the classrooms, CAL FIRE Captain Chris Sauer talked to visitors about the training he handles at Pine Grove.

“Here in the classroom, this is just one way they learn about firefighting and what it takes to work at a fire scene,” he said. “It’s dangerous work, and they need to know what they’re doing.”

Sauer said Pine Grove tries to have 10 CAL FIRE Captains running four crews at all times. Each crew has 12 to 17 youth offenders.

When not fighting fires, the work crews from Pine Grove YCC also clear brush and clean drains, along with various maintenance projects throughout the many Amador County communities.

Tod Dorris was a fire captain at Pine Grove for 13 years. He returned for the open house to see old friends. He knows how hard the young men work, and how important it is to change bad habits to point them in the right direction.

“This is priceless,” Dorris said. “The goal is to change behavior, to learn a skill. You can’t put a price on what goes on here, and what it can mean if these guys take advantage of the opportunities.”

Outside his classroom, teacher Tom Kubiak discussed the dedication of the youth offenders toward their rehabilitation and education.

“We know how busy these guys are, and how very committed they need to be,” he said. “This is an honor for them to be here. And as for education, this is a legitimate high school, with all the same requirements as any other California high school.”

Liz O’Keefe, who resides in Amador County, spent time at Pine Grove YCC as an educator.

“I used to teach high school here and know how important this place is for these young men,” she said.

Lynn Brumit also used to teach at the camp. Now she serves a part of the Citizen Advisory Committee, which acts as a liaison between the local communities and the camp.

“If we hear something that may or may not be correct, we know who to call at the camp to work through issues that may come up,” she said.

Pine Grove YCC Parole Agents Bob Conrad and Jeff Cramer also greeted visitors and spoke about their roles at the camp.

“Reintegration, that’s what we focus on,” Cramer said. “When they come up for parole, we make sure they have all their ducks lined up. We take them to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to get their California identification card and if they have saved their money, which many do, we’ll make sure they open a bank account. (We help them) understand the process so when they get out, they’ll have a few bucks to help them get started.”

Many of the visitors had never been to the camp and didn’t realize there are no fences. Pine Grove YCC is more of a camp atmosphere than a youth correctional facility. In fact, it was the youth offenders who led the tours and helped visitors feel welcome at Pine Grove YCC.

What’s a typical day like for a firefighter?

As reported in Inside CDCR in an earlier story, the youth will also learn 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 also hike in full gear – weighing approximately 40 pounds – for four miles in 65 minutes or less.

The youth are compensated for their work which goes into a trust account. Part of the fund goes toward victim restitution and the other part for the offender to help him when he transitions back to the community.

The lead on each crew makes $2 per day, while his No. 2 makes $1.50 a day; everyone makes a minimum of $1 per day. When they’re on the fire lines, they all are paid $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 youth offenders also get two-for-one good time credits on their sentences, which mean two days off for every day they’re involved in the program.

While in camp, the young men, who range in age from 18-23 years old, have a very regimented day. The alarm goes off at 7 a.m., breakfast is at 7:17, and they are off to work by 8. They usually get about half an hour for lunch, and work until 4 p.m. After a quick change, it’s off to dinner until 5, and then school from 5:30 to 10 p.m. It’s lights out at 10:15 p.m.

Read the original story about youth firefighters,