Firefighters prove they’re ready at Ishi Preparedness Exercises

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer
Video by David Novick, CDCR Video Specialist

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

The firefighters were sitting on the ground, sweaty, dirty and tired. They had just hiked 4.2 miles along a rugged trail, the sun beating down on them as they trudged along. Each man was dressed head to toe in flame-retardant gear, lugging heavy tools and drinking water. The break was welcome, but short, and after 10 minutes they were gearing up once more, preparing for the grueling work of clearing brush for another hour.

They were all up to the challenge, and eager to put their training to the test.

Meet the inmate firefighters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), men and women selected to join CAL FIRE and local crews in battling wildfires throughout the state. CDCR’s Conservation Camps program started in 1946 with the opening of Rainbow Camp in Fallbrook, and today more than 4,000 inmate firefighters work from 42 adult camps and one camp for juvenile offenders throughout the state.

“I’ve learned a lot – I’ve learned skills here I can use when I get out,” said Mike Jones, a firefighter at Ishi Conservation Camp #18 in Tehama County. “It teaches you accountability. You get with your crew and you learn how to work together, and all different races come together and it doesn’t matter.”

Because inmate fire crews work in communities, inmates must meet certain criteria to be eligible. This includes not being convicted of any sexual or arson offenses, no escape history and no life sentence. Inmates accepted into the program undergo intense physical fitness and firefighter training, provided by CAL FIRE, to prepare them for their work conditions.

Each year, CAL FIRE holds the annual Preparedness Exercises at Ishi Camp, where nearly 50 inmate fire crews undergo drills on safety, physical conditioning and firefighting knowledge. Throughout the day, crews are tested on their knowledge of tools, ability to deploy emergency shelters and their physical ability, culminating in the 4.2-mile hike and brush-clearing exercise.

The crews are also tested on safety, from wearing the appropriate gear to packing enough drinking water. While the crews are expected to complete the hike within 75 minutes, they must also take care not to over-exert themselves.

“You can’t do the hike too quickly, because then you get penalized,” explained CDCR Lt. Dan Billeci, who works at Trinity River Conservation Camp #3 in Lewiston. “If you hike it too fast, you’re going to be exhausted by the time it’s time to start cutting line for the fire. So there has to be a happy medium.”

During a fire, inmate crews are primarily tasked with clearing brush to stop the flames from spreading. Crews use picks, shovels, axes and chainsaws to tear intensely flammable brush down to bare mineral soil, fighting the clock as flames spread.

“Without these guys out there cutting that line, a lot of fires would get a lot bigger,” observed CAL FIRE Capt. Tim Rader. “They go into areas that nobody else wants to go into, or that dozers are not able to get into. Without them, these fires would not stop.”

Rader, who has been working with inmate crews for six years, said when the men and women first arrive at camp, it’s often the first time they’ve ever seen the woods. Training begins with getting crews acclimated to being outdoors and exercising, beginning with short hikes and working up to longer treks.

In the classroom, inmate firefighters learn the terminology of the trade, how to stay safe on the job, first aid, map reading and fire behavior, followed by 29 hours of field training in tools, fire shelters, mop-up and fitness. Inmate firefighters are paid for their work, and earn extra credit for time served when on the fire line.

“It’s very helpful to have the crews there assisting us,” said Fire Prevention Specialist Cheryl Buliavac. “The manpower that they bring is unbelievable — the hard work, just having them there to help with cutting a hand line, getting the brush clear so the firefighters can get the hose in.

“The crews are really motivated,” Buliavac added. “They take a lot of pride in their work.”

When not fighting fires, inmate fire crews participate in community service and conservation projects such as clearing fire breaks, restoring historical structures, park maintenance, sand- bagging and flood protection and clearing fallen trees and debris. This work, combined with manpower on the fire lines, saves California taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

“They’re the backbone of our department when we get to our large incidents, because as the incidents grow it takes a huge workforce,” said Dave Russell, CAL FIRE Division Chief at Ishi Camp.

Robert Shelton, a firefighter at Intermountain Conservation Camp #22 in Lassen County, said that for him, fighting fires and doing service projects is a chance to give back.

“I’ve been a liability for a lot of years, and it finally feels good to give something back to the community and improve myself,” he said.

Shelton commented on the brotherhood of camp, where racial and social backgrounds fall away. Living and working together, the firefighters become a family of sorts, relying on one another to get the job done.

“You get to work together as a team, and it’s no longer black, white or Mexican,” he said. “It’s all one unity. You’re just one orange caterpillar and you have to work together to get up the mountain.”