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.
- Overall, there are approximately 3,100 inmates working at fire camps currently. Approximately 2,200 of those are fire line-qualified inmates. In addition to inmate firefighters, camp inmates can work as support staff for the camps.
- All inmates receive the same entry-level training that CAL FIRE’s seasonal firefighters receive in addition to ongoing training from CAL FIRE throughout the time they are in the program.
- 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.
- 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 CAL FIRE), 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.
The 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, Ben Lomond crews have been assigned to rescue efforts in local parks, and are also eligible to respond for flood suppression.