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.