Eel River drills train 85 incarcerated firefighters
On a breezy warm spring day in Humboldt County, incarcerated volunteer firefighters quickly file out of a truck, grab their gear and form a line. “Eel River Crew Four ready for inspection,” they yell in unison. Throughout the day roughly seven fire crews, totaling nearly 85 firefighters, take part in a north coast fire training exercise. The only difference between these volunteers and those of other fire departments is their custody status. All these volunteers are serving sentences in the state prison system.
Eel River Conservation Camp on May 18 hosted fire crews from Alder and Parlin Fork camps for what’s called the annual Redwood Coast Fire Preparedness Exercises. The California conservation camps are a partnership between CDCR and CAL FIRE. The professional firefighters handle training while CDCR handles security and custody.
“The crew exercises provide the opportunity for fire crews from Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties to be evaluated on their physical conditioning, firefighting knowledge, fire safety and personal protective equipment. The exercise also provides training for personnel operating within the Incident Command System,” according to CAL FIRE officials.
Providing a chance to make amends
Correctional Lieutenant Fred Money oversees the CDCR side of the camp. He and his staff are responsible for the safety and security of those in their care.
In the role for seven years, Lt. Money said the general public doesn’t realize how much the incarcerated firefighters do for neighboring communities.
From clearing brush along highways and roads to creating shaded fuel breaks in small towns, the work is essential to reducing the risk of another community being wiped out by wildfire.
“When the incarcerated firefighters see thank you banners along the roads, it reinforces the positive changes they are making in their lives,” Lt. Money said. “Being part of a fire crew helps them learn about teamwork. The conservation camp program is one of the most effective for rehabilitation.”
After devastating fires destroyed entire towns, fire preparedness became a priority for many rural areas.
Incarcerated firefighters help rural communities
Fire Captain Jim Mahoney said when nonprofit organizations, schools and municipalities need help, they can sponsor a fire crew. There is a fee to sponsor the crew, but the cost varies.
“They contact me and we assess the request,” he explained. “We go out and look at the project and Lt. Money looks at the security issues.”
There are three rank levels of security, with three being the highest.
“Level one would be in the middle of nowhere while being near a school would be security level three,” Mahoney said.
Fire Captain Mahoney reiterated that serving time at the camps is voluntary.
“They can leave the program,” he said. “All they’ve got to do is say when.”
Some of the organizations assisted by incarcerated firefighters:
- Shelter Cove
- Humboldt County
- The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association)
- A school in Briceland
- California State Parks building roads, foot bridges, trails for recreation areas
- Bureau of Land Management
Conservation camps go beyond fighting fires
While incarcerated in a camp, the residents have more freedom, increased connectivity with loved ones and incentives otherwise not offered in a traditional prison.
Michael Nguyen has served at Eel River for about eight months, but he doesn’t fight fires. He’s a clerk, ensuring day-to-day operations continue, even if a crew is out on a fire line.
“We take care of all the paperwork and basically run the camp,” he said. “It keeps me busy but I also volunteer everywhere.”
When not at a desk, he can be found helping in the kitchen or anywhere else they are shorthanded.
Nguyen is familiar with CDCR’s institutions. So far, he has served a year at Deuel Vocational Institution and two at California Correctional Center. He has also served eight months at Antelope Conservation Camp.
“The camp is more work but the work is rewarded more,” he said. “There is a lot less prison culture you have to deal with here. There is also better food and more recreation options.”
Staff and those housed at camps also believe there are misconceptions about the voluntarily aspect of the camp system.
“They don’t force us to be here,” Nguyen said. “I’d rather serve the rest of my sentence in a camp than on a prison yard.”
Maintaining family connections
Keeping in contact with his family is also easier at a camp.
“On a yard, you can have hundreds of guys waiting to use a phone (to call home). At a camp, we don’t have that problem,” Nguyen said. “What camp teaches you is if you get with the program, your efforts are rewarded. It builds up your work ethic.”
The incarcerated military veteran said he’s always participated in rehabilitative programming.
“If someone is thinking about volunteering for a camp, and doesn’t mind hard work, it’s worth it,” he said. “If you want to better yourself, camp is the place you can do it. Camp teaches valuable lessons in life, whether or not you want to do firefighting as a career.”
Did you know?
In September 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2147 into law, which allows former non-violent incarcerated people who participated in a CDCR conservation camp fire crew to have their records expunged. This removes barriers so they can seek jobs as firefighters in the community. The new law went into effect on January 1, 2021. Learn more at https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/fire_camp_expungement/.
Photos and story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor.