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Eel River Camp hosts northern coast inmate fire training

Story and bottom photos by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Top and center photos by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer

More than 320 inmate firefighters from five fire camps on the northern California coast gathered May 16-18 to prepare for the upcoming fire season. When they put their lives on the line fighting fires in the rugged hills and mountains, other inmates will be hard at work supporting their efforts, as they do throughout the year. CDCR staff sees the rehabilitative effects of the camp program not only on the firefighters, but also on those inmates working behind the scene at the camp.

A different kind of camp

The sprawling Eel River Conservation Camp is the largest in the system, according to CDCR Camp Commander Lt. Fred Money.

On this day, the camp – operated jointly by CAL FIRE and CDCR – is hosting 25 crews from other camps to get them prepared for the coming fire season.

Eel River’s philosophy is all about cooperation between agencies, staff and inmates.

“Unlike a lot of other camps, at Eel River, we do not have two separate administration buildings for CDCR and CAL FIRE,” said Lt. Money. “We are in the same building and work very closely together.”

The admin building also serves as the visiting area on the weekend, with picnic areas and barbecue grills located just outside the building.

“This allows a more relaxed atmosphere than what you’d find in an institution,” he said.

The camp spreads across a large clearing, boasting a warehouse, helicopter landing pad, dorms, greenhouse, library, hobby rooms, television room and baseball diamond.

“We’re the only camp with a full warehouse, supplying the coastal camps,” Lt. Money said.

Losing the walls

Nearby on a large meadow, two emergency crew transport vehicles pull up to CAL FIRE trainers while two rows of inmate firefighters grab gear and line up for the “tool-out” exercise. This part of the day’s exercise is handled on grounds.

Lt. Money watches the action from a distance, noticing the next set of crews getting ready to jump in line as soon as the current two finish.

He said he never imagined he would be working in the camp system. He got his start at High Desert State Prison at Susanville. After transferring to California Correctional Center, he was asked about working in the camps and always dismissed the idea, until he visited one.

“I mean, look at this. I get to come to work here, in all this beauty, surrounded by nature? This is a great job,” he said.

While the camp system is known for rehabilitating inmate firefighters, those in supporting roles also see themselves as part of the larger team, benefiting the state.

“We don’t just rehabilitate through firefighting, but also through the support inmates like cooks, gardeners, warehouse, clerks, laundry and mechanics,” Lt. Money said. “You have those inmates who truly appreciate this.”

For inmates and staff alike, coming from other institutions into a camp can be life-changing.

“For those of us coming from a level IV, we bring the situational awareness into this setting,” he said. “But, we also see the inmates aren’t just lifers, these guys are here doing good things, doing good work. They do good work in the community.”

Inmates once focused on what Lt. Money refers to as “prison politics” find little of that behavior in a camp setting.

“In institutions, there are politics in prisons and when they get to camp, they get to lose the walls,” he said. “We make them sit by (fire) crews in the dining hall. They also bunk by crews. … In camp, you get things that are more crew driven rather than gang driven.”

Growing hope

Inside a large greenhouse, lead gardener Dominik Hamilton digs holes, plants vegetables and spreads compost.

The camp has a large composting area, which crows have discovered.

“We have a lot of crows out here,” he said as three fly overhead. “We compost and we get a lot of soil. We put in grass trimmings, kitchen scraps and leaves. The inmates will come out and turn it, turn it and turn it. When they’re done, the soil at the bottom is very dark.”

Dominik Hamilton is the lead gardener. “It’s a lot of work but the results are good,” he said.

Hamilton, an inmate, has been working on the garden since he arrived in 2015.

“I love it,” he said with a broad grin. “This was my first job when I got here. My grandpa has a garden so I was kind of raised around it.”

The greenhouse was once part of a gardening nursery that went out of business. The business donated the building to the camp, but it had to be relocated.

“They said if we wanted it to come get it, so we did,” Lt. Money said. “You have to be resourceful out here and make use of what’s available. We moved this structure to the camp piece by piece. The only thing we couldn’t salvage was the roof, but CAL FIRE helped us with that.”

He points to a few other inmates putting cages around newly planted tomatoes.

“See these tomato cages? They were old marijuana wraps they were throwing away at the transfer station. I saw them and asked if we could have them. We cut them in half and they work great,” he said.

The camp sits beside a refuse transfer station.

Hamilton acknowledges he’s made mistakes and he hopes the garden is a way to give back.

“(Gardening brings) peace of mind,” he said. “Being in this situation, I’m able to help pay my debt to society. A lot of these plants have good vitamins in them. We have a lot of different kinds of tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. It’s great when we do salsa. (Gardening is) a lot of work, but the results are good.”

Lt. Money reminds Hamilton to plant pumpkins for the fall.

“I already talked to Mrs. Van Meter and told her I would plant some,” Hamilton said.

Suzanne Van Meter, the CAL FIRE office technician for the camp, uses the pumpkins for decoration at the facility.

“One year, we shipped over 20,000 pounds of vegetables out of here,” Lt. Money said. “We do a lot of growing here.”

The garden supplements the camp’s kitchen, providing healthy food for the inmate firefighters and the support crew.

Renewed rehabilitation

Lt. Waylon Hanks, the commander at Alder Conservation Camp, said support inmates would otherwise qualify to be firefighters but usually can’t pass the physical requirements.

He also came from High Desert State Prison, where he also worked for 14 years.

“Coming from an institution where the rehabilitation (isn’t the priority), this gives me hope,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the department. This is an example of true rehabilitation.”

For many inmates coming into the camp system, this is the first job they’ve ever had.

“There are youthful inmates who never worked,” said Lt. Money. “One of my first fires, an inmate came off a bus after fighting fires, exhausted and covered in soot. He said, ‘Lieutenant, I’ve never worked a day in my life and this let me know that now I can.’”

Lt. Hanks, who has been with Alder Camp for about a year, said he was touched when a child came to visit his inmate firefighter dad. Since it was close to Halloween, the child was wearing a firefighting costume.

“We let the inmate get his turnouts (firefighting outfit) and CAL FIRE brought around a truck. This was so inspiring to see a father and son interact like that,” he said. “He was so proud of his dad.”

From wild to mild

Many fire camps have a pet but Eel River has two. The first is a small dog the camp named Wishbone.

Wishbone is a loyal dog without knowing he’s loyal, according to the camp commander at Eel River. The dog, a stray, has adopted the camp. (Photo by Eric Owens)

“I’ve been here three years and he used to stay in the field but now he comes into camp,” said Lt. Money. “He’s nobody’s dog and he lets you know it.”

Wishbone stays a few steps behind Lt. Money during a camp tour, never entering buildings or going inside fenced areas. When the lieutenant reemerges, usually from the opposite side of the building, Wishbone is there waiting.

“He’s the world’s most loyal dog without even knowing he’s loyal,” Lt. Money said. “Everybody wants to pet him, but he won’t let you near him.”

Wishbone, spotting deer in the camp, barks and chases them away.

The second dog, kept in a kennel on this day because of the increased camp activity and heavy truck traffic, perks up when he sees Lt. Money approaching.

“Sorry, buddy. You’re going to have to stay in there just a little bit longer,” he tells the dog.

Since Wishbone doesn’t want to be touched, the camp adopted the second dog from a local animal shelter.

Readying for fire season

After the tool-out exercises, inmate firefighters load into their vehicles and are transported to a rutted dirt road north of the camp.

From there, wearing full gear, the firefighters hike to the cut area.

“They hike four miles, all uphill, and that’s a very realistic scenario,” said Lt. Money. “That’s when the real work begins.”

The firefighters are drilled on shelter deployment and cutting a line. Unlike some other training areas, this is in thick forest.

Using a chainsaw, an inmate firefighter cuts limbs off a downed tree to cut a fire line. (Photo by Eric Owens)

On this day, due to recent rains, those not hiking (such as media and dignitaries), are transported by all-terrain vehicle through rutted, muddy roads to the cut area.

There, crews dig, claw and cut their way up a steep hillside, surrounded by thick underbrush and towering redwoods and pine trees, as well as poison oak.

“The poison oak is thick up there, be careful,” shouted a CAL FIRE trainer to the inmates.

To help prevent poison oak rashes, the inmates were provided an instruction sheet and a bottle of dishwashing soap.

“To mitigate this (poison oak) reaction, we are providing each crew with Dawn dishwashing detergent. A solution of water and Dawn detergent has been shown to remove the contaminating oil from skin, clothing and tools. Please consider taking time after your cut and once you return to the bottom of the hill to your crew bus, to wash any surface that might have been exposed,” the instructions state.

Also, to help prevent the spread of sudden oak death, the vehicles and tools are cleaned with a disinfectant after the line-cut exercises.

This year, camps are going from an extremely wet winter to what could be a very active fire season.

Inmate firefighters cut a line through thick undergrowth in the forest off Highway 101 near Eel River Conservation Camp.

“The rain has caused a lot of issues at Alder,” said Lt. Hanks. “We responded to the Oroville spillway incident this year and also did some flood controls and cutting down trees.”

The camp was also plagued by storm damage.

“We had a tree the size of a bus come down and knock out power lines,” he said. “It was a challenging year this year. We were isolated for about a week. It was very wet. It was the most rain we’ve had in the 30 years we’ve been recording.”

The camp is still recovering, using Eel River’s mobile kitchen unit to prepare meals for the inmates.

Cooperation is a key element for the camp system. From inmates to staff and camp to camp, it’s all about teamwork.

“We’re all on the same team,” Lt. Money said. Because of the camp’s size, it often serves as a staging area.

A large freezer at Eel River is fully stocked with meals, ready to be used if the crews are called out on the fire line.

“It’s full, ready to go for that first event,” he said.

From highway construction to fighting fires

In 1915, inmates were used for the first time for highway construction and Humboldt County was among the first selected.

“The first crews of the State prison inmates to be put to work will be drawn from San Quentin, on requisitions already filed with the State Board of Prison Directors. The first work will be on strips of highway in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, one being from Cummings to the south fork of the Eel River, 33 miles in Mendocino County, and the other from Miranda to Garberville, 15 miles in Humboldt County,” reported the Press Democrat, June 16, 1915. “Three camps of 60 men each will start the work. … Each camp will consist of a working force, a policing force and a camp, or cooking force. … The plan does not contemplate a haphazard selection of men for the trials. Men will be selected who can be trusted.”

Early in the camp program, the rehabilitative effects were recognized.

“Governor pardons worker on highway,” states the headline in the Sacramento Union, April 27, 1916. “William Wilson, sentenced to serve 10 years in San Quentin on Aug. 4, 1913, by the Superior Court of Contra Costa County for manslaughter, was pardoned yesterday by Governor Johnson because he had been an exemplary prisoner. … Wilson first attracted the attention of the prison officials while working at the experimental highway camp in southern Humboldt County. He won the confidence of his overseers.”

The deciding judge and the prosecuting district attorney joined forces “in asking executive clemency for the prisoner.”

Leggett Valley, the first state prison highway camp, (circa 1917).

A sitting state governor visited an honor camp in 1917, sleeping near the inmates.

“Governor William Stephens and party slept tonight by the side of penitentiary prisoners in a convict camp in the heart of a great forest on the south fork of the Eel River in southern Humboldt County, miles from a telephone or other evidence of civilization,” reported the Sacramento Union, Aug. 17, 1917. “The party retired early tonight after a day spent inspecting the state highway and one of the two camps housing convicts who built the road. The governor viewed for the first time the grandeur of the redwood scenery of north coast country. A special venison barbecue was arranged in his honor late today.”

In 1960, three camps were established to help fight fires.

“The State Department of Corrections has opened three conservation camps in Northern California to aid in forest fire suppression,” reported the Madera Tribune, Aug. 31, 1960. “The Plum Creek camp, about 20 miles northeast of Red Bluff …, will house 80 trusted prison inmates. A total of 58 inmates will staff the Harvey Valley Conservation Camp 38 miles north of Susanville … and 32 prisoners will be assigned to the Ice Springs camp 23 miles northwest of Elk Creek.”

In 1962, inmates were called to help fight a 5,000-acre fire in Lake County.

“More than 250 firefighters and 100 pieces of equipment were rushed to the scene and a call went out for another 200 men, including all available civil defense units and prison camp conservation crews,” reported the Desert Sun, Aug. 28, 1962.

The Eel River camp, according to its records, was activated Feb. 2, 1967.