Story and photos by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Tourists making their way to Lassen National Park, Burney Falls or the Lava Beds National Monument may not realize there is an inmate fire camp nearby with trained firefighters ready to help those travelers if they find themselves in danger.
Intermountain Conservation Camp 22, tucked away in the pine trees at the base of Big Valley Mountain, is four miles north of the town of Bieber and its 300 residents. Surrounded by ranches and forest, the camp is home to some 70 incarcerated individuals. Overseen by CDCR and CalFIRE, the camp has roughly 20 employees, split between the two agencies.
The camp serves a broad area stretching from the Oregon border south to Lassen Volcanic National Park, Burney, McArthur and Fall River Mills, and east to Modoc National Forest which includes the small towns of Bieber, Adin, Nubieber and Lookout.
Community roots run deep
Correctional Officer Byron Conner has worked at the camp for 16 years and is no stranger to the area. His family settled the region back at the turn of the last century.
“I’m from Big Valley and I couldn’t ask for a better job or place to work,” he said. “This camp does a lot of good work in the communities and we’re fortunate to have their backing.”
A sign displayed at the Intermountain Fairgrounds thanks the inmate fire crews for their hard work and dedication. Crews help get the grounds ready for the fair each year. They also build fencing for the Ash Creek Wildlife Area and clear brush along the roadways, particularly the main stretch of highway from Adin to beyond Burney. In 2017, the camp provided 8,800 hours of project and conservation work to the surrounding communities.
“A lot of people don’t notice it but all that brush clearing is a lot of work for these guys. It improves visibility for drivers, especially when it comes to deer, and helps reduce ice in the winter,” Officer Conner said. “We’re a four-crew camp. Most others are five- or six-crew camps so we’re one of the smaller camps.”
Going to the chapel
Intermountain is one of the few camps to have a dedicated chapel for religious services.
On a sunny Saturday morning, Ron Friese and Dale Vroman made their way through the camp. The two volunteer from the community to offer church services to the inmates.
For 26 years Friese, who often volunteers with his wife Deborah, has been holding services at the camp.
Vroman and his wife Judy have been volunteering for about three years, according to Officer Conner.
“We don’t have a local congregation anymore, so this is it for us now,” Friese said. “The camp has a nice chapel. Most camps don’t have one.”
The lanky pastor is quick with a smile and a handshake, offering encouraging words to those who pass by on their way to the chapel. Friese said now that he and his wife have gotten older, they are grateful for the help offered by the Vromans.
“With them helping, we’re able to bring services to the camp almost every weekend,” he said. “They are usually able to do it when we can’t.”
As inmates filed into the chapel, Friese and Vroman offered each a handshake, a smile and sometimes a brief hug.
Ready to roll
If a call goes out for fire suppression, the camp is ready. Last year, a large fire near the camp found them acting as the staging area.
“We had 12 strike teams here,” Officer Conner said. “We don’t do mobile kitchens like some of the other camps so our guys ran the kitchen the entire time. We fed the crews here with the camp’s kitchen. It was amazing to watch that many people walking through this camp. That includes Cal FIRE, forestry, volunteers and CDCR.”
The kitchen crew gets a dorm area much closer to their workplace, separated from the rest of the men.
“We do that so they can get in there and focus on what they need to do,” he said.
During large events, such as the dozen strike teams filtering through the place, the camp sets up outside tables and chairs.
The kitchen and dining area are smaller than most other camps but it doesn’t bother those who work there. Murals along the walls of the dining hall depict scenes of training and fire suppression but also show areas in the community such as local high schools, parks and organizations. Those other areas are reminders of the service work inmate crews perform for the community.
During the 2017 fire season, Intermountain Crews dispatched to 73 incidents and logged over 100,200 hours of fire suppression. The camp’s fire crews also dedicated 9,896 hours of work to the Burney Fuel Break, a project funded by Shasta-Trinity Unit State Recreation Area.
Relaxation, rehabilitation and repairs
Saturday is a day for inmates to pause, reflect and relax before hard training begins again. In the distance, two inmates walk around the track.
“Some of the inmates take it upon themselves to ensure they are fit even on off days,” said Officer Conner. “They’ll check out a full-gear pack and walk around the track to build their endurance.”
During their down time, inmates can play a game of softball or basketball, watch a movie or read. They can also take part in hobby crafts. Last year, the camp had a woodcarver serving time. He crafted trees, an elk and bears out of wood, now decorating the front of the CDCR office at the camp.
Inmate Andy White, serving a 10-year and 4-month sentence, also has experience in carpentry, woodworking, masonry and welding. He takes full advantage of the hobby craft side, spending his down time building toys and play structures for charitable organizations like Lassen Family Services. Last year he handcrafted a tank-style play structure to be donated for that group’s fundraiser. This year he’s constructing a large train out of wood that will sit on a 600-pound metal frame.
He crafted a mock military tank as a children’s playhouse last year (Read the story here.)
No longer offering welding as a vocational certification training course, the camp improvises with what’s available.
“I do what I can to help train the guys in welding, especially the younger guys,” White said. “They won’t be certified welders but with the experience they’ll get, maybe they can get a job at a small welding shop.”
The massive metal works shop is still stocked and the camp continues to turn out products for Cal FIRE and other agencies. They built guard rails for Cal Trans, 150 feet of iron fencing for Redding and are in the process of taking old single-door lockers and converting them into two-door lockers for California Correctional Center in Susanville.
But it isn’t all about the trades, as White points out. For many of the men, it’s the first time they’ve ever had to keep a schedule or hold a job. To help keep them motivated and positive, White uses an old-fashioned approach.
“I write something on the board here and have the guys think about it and we study it,” White said, pointing to a dry-erase board hanging on the wall.
The inmates have been hard at work fixing the old stone work, refinishing the floors in the dormitories and creating a new sign bearing the camp’s logo and name.
“The upkeep on this old place is hard,” said Officer Conner.
Age and adverse weather conditions can lead to some problems.
“We’re one of the higher camps,” he said. “On a bad snow year, we’ll have three feet of snow. Sometimes we get snow in July.”
Tranquility in the trees
White said he enjoys the fresh outdoors and the beauty of the area. The remote location also prevents a lot of trouble seen by other camps and prisons.
“We’re fortunate with our location that we don’t have the battle with contraband some of the other camps face,” said Officer Conner.
White agreed that it’s a better environment without those distractions, especially drugs.
“We don’t want it here,” White said. “It’s hard to do time with that stuff around. (This) camp is a good place to get your head right.”