The primary mission of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Conservation Camp program is to provide an able-bodied, trained work force for fire suppression and other emergencies such as floods and earthquakes. In addition, fire crews work on conservation projects on public lands and provide labor on local community services projects. The CDCR/CALFIRE annual operating budget is approximately $2.35 million per camp.
There are 43 conservation camps for adult offenders and one camp for juvenile offenders. Three of the adult offender camps house female fire fighters. Thirty-nine adult camps and the juvenile offender camp are jointly managed by CDCR and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire. Five camps are jointly managed with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The conservation camps, which are located in 29 counties, can house up to 4,522 adult inmates and 80 juveniles, which make up approximately 219 fire-fighting crews. A typical camp houses five, 17-member fire-fighting crews as well as inmates who provide support services.
In an average year, the Conservation Camp program provides approximately three million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and seven million person-hours in community service projects, saving California taxpayers approximately $100 million. Those projects can include clearing fire breaks, restoring historical structures, maintaining parks, sand bagging and flood protection, reforestation and clearing fallen trees and debris.
All inmates must earn the right to work in a conservation camp by their non-violent behavior and conformance to rules while they are incarcerated. Only minimum-custody inmates are eligible to volunteer for assignment in conservation camps. All volunteers are carefully screened and medically cleared on a case by case basis before they are accepted into the program.
Some convictions automatically make an inmate ineligible for conservation camp assignment, even if they have minimum custody status. Those convictions include: sexual offenses, arson and any history of escape with force or violence.
Inmates considered potential fire crew members are evaluated for their physical fitness by CDCR and are trained in fire-fighting techniques by CalFire, which includes a week of classroom instruction and a second week of field exercises.
Adult male inmates receive fire-fighting training at the California Correctional Center, Susanville; Sierra Conservation Center, Jamestown; the California Men’s Colony, San Luis Obispo; and the California Rehabilitation Center, Norco. Female inmates are trained at the California Institution for Women, Corona. Juvenile offenders are trained at the Pine Grove Conservation Camp in Amador County.
The Conservation Camp Program was initiated by CDCR to provide able-bodied inmates the opportunity to work on meaningful projects throughout the state. The CDCR road camps were established in 1915. During World War II much of the work force that was used by the Division of Forestry (now known as CalFire), was depleted. The CDCR provided the needed work force by having inmates occupy "temporary camps" to augment the regular firefighting forces. There were 41 “interim camps” during WWII, which were the foundation for the network of camps in operation today. In 1946, the Rainbow Conservation Camp was opened as the first permanent male conservation camp. Rainbow made history again when it converted to a female camp in 1983. The Los Angeles County Fire Department (LAC), in contract with the CDCR, opened five camps in Los Angeles County in the 1980's. View detailed history of the conservation camps