Firefighters, Rehabilitation

When fire threatens Oak Glen Conservation Camp, firefighters work to save their own

By Oak Glen Conservation Camp staff

As of Aug. 7, Riverside County’s Apple Fire has torched more than 45 square miles, destroyed four structures and resulted in one injury. The fire forced evacuations across the region, including the camp that houses those tasked with fighting such fires.

The fire started in the afternoon on July 31 in Cherry Valley, a small town in Riverside County. The ignition point was just a few miles south of the Oak Glen Conservation Camp. Despite their best efforts to turn back the flames, the camp was evacuated the following day.

Evacuating the camp

Incarcerated men who were unassigned to active firefighting were reassigned to Pilot Rock Conservation Camp. The Oak Glen crews then turned their attention to fighting the Apple Fire and preserving the fire camp.

“CAL FIRE employees and incarcerated firefighters assigned to Oak Glen showed tremendous dedication in thwarting the flames around the main camp buildings,” according to a statement issued by the camp. “The fire wrapped around most of the camp and continued on into the hills lying north of the camp.”

CAL FIRE had some minimal building damage. Unfortunately, there was heavy damage to some firefighting equipment. CDCR property saw no major damage.

The fire is 30% contained and continues to burn.

“After Oak Glen was out of fire danger, the water supply returned to adequate levels and the camp was re-populated. The incarcerated population housed at Pilot Rock returned to the camp’s grounds. The inmate firefighters assigned to the Apple Fire continue to aid in stopping its progression into the San Bernardino National Forest,” according to camp officials.

Firefighter reactions

“I felt shocked that such a thing could happen to our camp,” said incarcerated firefighter Eric Simion. “I wasn’t really scared because I’ve had a lot of fire experience but was concerned about what I should do for the camp.”

He grabbed one of the hoses and started creating a barrier between the fire line and the hobby shop.

“Then I saw some spot fires start in front of the schoolhouse and I knew it was for real,” Simion said.

Fellow incarcerated firefighter Brian Barrios agreed.

“It was kind of hectic and chaotic. It came so close to the camp, a lot of plans changed. But at the end of the day, we came together and were able to save a lot of the camp,” he said.

Despite being frightened, incarcerated firefighter Gorgonio Rivera said he focused on saving lives.

“I was scared because I never experienced something like that in my entire life,” he recalled. “I just thought of my family and did what I could to save myself and the rest of us.”