Firefighters, Rehabilitation

Conservation Camp program: Redemption on the fire line

Firefighters, conservation camp staff embrace mission

Ishi Conservation Camp — Trudging through thick brush and powdery red dirt, incarcerated firefighters carry heavy packs and equipment under the baking sun. Today is one of four days of special firefighter training in the Sierra foothills of northern California, near the Ishi Conservation Camp.

The firefighters seek to better themselves and protect Californians through the decades-old fire camp program, administered by CAL FIRE and CDCR.

The Ishi Fire Crew Exercise, an annual endeavor to get incarcerated firefighters prepped for the rapidly approaching fire season, drew fire crews from across the region.

The conservation camp program’s goal is to provide rehabilitation, while serving California residents through firefighting and community improvement efforts.

But, for many of the camp staff members, the program has also been life changing.

Attitude changes for staff

“What I’ve seen is not only has it rehabilitated and changed the lives of our inmates, but also those of our officers,” said Capt. Ben Ingwerson, who oversees the 18-camp program from California Correctional Center (CCC). “See this officer? He came from a level IV (maximum security) institution. He’s walking down the line telling the inmates ‘good job.’ He’s encouraging them. I came from a level IV and you don’t see this kind of interaction between inmates and staff.”

Once staff members see the rehabilitative benefits of the fire camp program, their attitudes begin to change. For those coming from a higher level institution, he said you can see a difference in their outlook because they have hope for the mission.

“Level IV officers have a job to do under difficult circumstances and they are just trying to get through day to day,” he said. “The camp system is different and as those staff members come into this system and see the positive impact we have on the inmates, they change as well.”

Turning around lives

During the “tool out” exercise, CDCR camp staff stood in the shade swapping success stories of rehabilitation.

Ishi Camp Commander Lt. Matt Gregor said formerly incarcerated men have written emails or called him to let him know they have turned their lives around.

“I don’t know how they find my email or my office phone, but they call just to thank us,” he said.

Capt. Ingwerson agreed.

“I can’t tell you the feeling you get when a former inmate to tells you he’s doing OK,” he said. “It’s no longer about warehousing inmates. Today’s inmate is tomorrow’s neighbor.”

Conservation camp offers structured setting

Ingwerson said for some of the incarcerated firefighters, this is their first exposure to a schedule, role models and rules. It’s often their first time in a job-like setting.

“We provide structure,” Capt. Ingwerson said. “We have guys who are learning trades and skills, getting some direction and purpose in their lives. They learn what it means follow a schedule and got to work. They often haven’t had that before.”

CCC acting Warden Suzanne Peery offered encouraging words as firefighters pushed through the training exercises.

“We are one of the best rehabilitative programs in the whole state,” she said. “It’s not just coming to a fire camp, it’s learning responsibility and teamwork. They develop a sense of pride from working with a crew. We see the positive benefits every day. It makes the staff proud of what they’re doing.”

Brian Duffy, a former warden of two institutions, is the associate director for the fire camp program. He started his career at San Quentin as a correctional officer in 1993.

“Back when I started, you didn’t hear much about rehabilitation or programming,” he said. “Yet, the fire camp program is one of the best services we provide.”

Benefits to the state

Steve Meyer, wearing a cowboy hat and sporting some gray in his beard, is very familiar with the area around Paynes Creek. Since he was a little boy, he’s crawled on the rocks, run through the meadows and enjoyed life up the road from the Ishi Fire Camp.

On this day, Meyer watches as crews of inmates cut fire lines in thick brush. At one time, much of this land belonged to his grandfather. Today, the land is managed by the non-profit Paynes Creek Sportsmen Club, of which he is a member and one of the property owners.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of the property,” he said. “We have a board of directors and about five or six years ago they asked me to find out about managing the habitat.”

He spoke to the nearby fire camp and they told him they had recently lost their training grounds. They struck a deal, he said, and now the inmates are able to train on the property.

“It’s beneficial for us as property owners to get rid of this invasive white thorn,” he said. “It’s a great place for the inmates to train and learn skills to fight fires.”

Meyer said two large fires have burned through the property in his lifetime. He said with the help of the inmates cutting fire lines, the chances of a devastating fire are reduced.

According to Ishi camp officials, “In 2016, inmates logged 70,359 grade-work hours of which 17,816 were spent on local projects.”

Some of those projects included snow removal, flood prevention, tree removal, weed abatement, clearing ditches, brushing roads and trails, fuel breaks, fence installation and construction projects.

How the firefighters train

  • Tool Out – Crews prepare themselves to exit the emergency crew transport (ECT) ready for fire suppression activities in full personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • 10s and 18s – Crews are quizzed on their knowledge of look-outs, communications, escape routes, and safety zones (LCES) while proctors inspect their gear and tools.
  • Simulated Air-Tanker Drop – Crews experience a simulated air tanker drop, while demonstrating proper safety procedures.
  • Fire Shelter Deployment – A simulation requires crews to demonstrate proper fire shelter deployment and safety procedures in the event of a burn-over.
  • Timed Hike (70 minutes) – Crews traverse 3.8 miles of various terrain ranging from steep inclines to moderate declines all while wearing full gear and PPE.
  • Time Fire Line Construction (60 minutes, 300 feet long, 6-foot cut, 4-foot scrape) – Crews construct a fire contingency line in thick brush that is six- to eight-feet tall. The brush consists of pin oak, white thorn and manzanita.
  • Crews are evaluated and graded, required to pass every aspect of their training in order to be able to respond to fire suppression and emergency incidents for that year’s fire season, according to camp literature on the exercise.

Story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor, OPEC
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer, OPEC

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