Conservation (Fire) Camps

The primary mission of the Conservation Camp Program is to support state, local and federal government agencies as they respond to emergencies such as fires, floods, and other natural or manmade disasters.

CDCR, in cooperation with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LAC FIRE), jointly operates 43 conservation camps, commonly known as fire camps, located in 27 counties. All camps are minimum-security facilities and all are staffed with correctional staff.

Consolidation of Fire Camps

CAL FIRE and CDCR are announcing the depopulation of eight of the state’s 43 conservation camps. The eight camps—four in the north and four in the south—have been operating at well below capacity for some time. The consolidation was part of Governor Newsom’s 2020-21 state budget, which calls for the camps to be consolidated by the end of December 2020.  

The eight camps include:

Northern Region:

Southern Region:

The depopulation will allow CAL FIRE and CDCR to effectively consolidate resources into the remaining 35 conservation camps, so that they can be more efficient and better staffed for response to wildfires, other emergencies, and engagement in conservation-related work. All staff from both departments will be reassigned, and all inmates will transfer to neighboring camps to continue their valuable work of assisting with conservation efforts and emergency situations.

Cal Fire Logo

CAL FIRE Partnership

CDCR is responsible for the selection, supervision, care and discipline of the inmates. CAL FIRE maintains the camp, supervises the work of the inmate fire crews, and is responsible for inmate custody while on daily grade projects. CDCR staff often accompany inmate fire crews on out-of-county assignments, or on local assignments located near residential areas. Inmates are directly supervised 24 hours per day while on work projects and while assigned to emergencies. In addition to fires, crews may be assigned to rescue efforts in local parks, and are also eligible to respond for flood suppression.

Conservation Camp Program Facts

  • As of Oct. 2020, there are approximately 1,800 inmates working at fire camps currently. Approximately 1,200 of those are fire line-qualified inmates. In addition to inmate firefighters, camp inmates can work as support staff for the camps such as cooks, laundry workers, landscapers, and water treatment plant workers.
  • An inmate must volunteer for the fire camp program; no one is involuntarily assigned to work in a fire camp. Volunteers must have “minimum custody” status, or the lowest classification for inmates based on their sustained good behavior in prison, their conforming to rules within the prison and participation in rehabilitative programming.
  • Some conviction offenses 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.
  • When not fighting fires, inmate firefighters perform conservation and community service projects performing a wide range of duties, such as clearing brush and fallen trees to reduce the chance of fire, maintaining parks, sand bagging, flood protection and reforestation.
  • Most incarcerated firefighters receive 2-for-1 credits – meaning they receive two additional days off their sentence for every one day they serve as a firefighter.

Firefighter Training

All inmate firefighters receive a week of classroom instruction and a second week of field exercises.

Adult male inmates receive Fire Fighting Training (FFT) is taught by CAL FIRE staff and consists of 29 hours of classroom training. The California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville serves as the primary hub for providing training and placement of inmates in Northern California conservation camps. Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) in Jamestown serves as the primary hub for Southern California conservation camps. Female inmates are trained at the California Institution for Women and youthful offenders are trained at the Pine Grove Conservation Camp in Amador County.

History

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 CAL FIRE), was depleted.

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.

Rehabilitation

The Conservation Camp Program can be an important part of an inmate’s rehabilitation while they are serving their sentences with CDCR as they are performing a vital service and giving back to the community. Just as in every CDCR prison, every fire camp offers rehabilitative and educational services.

Many former incarcerated firefighters from the state’s Conservation Camp Program go on to gain employment with CAL FIRE, the United States Forest Service and interagency hotshot crews, which do not require EMT certifications. CAL FIRE does not require EMT certification to become employed as a firefighter with their department, nor do federal firefighting crews or private municipal fire departments.

In effort to expand employment opportunities for incarcerated persons paroling from fire camps, CDCR, CAL FIRE and the California Conservation Corps partnered to implement a Firefighter Training and Certification Program in Ventura County in October 2018. The Ventura Training Center is an 18-month program that provides advanced firefighter training to eligible former offenders on parole who have recently been part of a trained firefighting workforce housed in fire camps or institutional firehouses operated by CAL FIRE and CDCR. Members of the California Conservation Corps are also eligible to participate.