California’s conservation camp program can trace its roots to the highway camps of the early 1900s which gave incarcerated people a new life. Back then, they built roads through mountains and hills, helping connect rural communities. The tradition of serving communities continues today as incarcerated men and women learn the value of teamwork in one of the state’s camps.
Eel River is largest conservation camp in state
Eel River, the largest camp in California, was originally going to be a prison. Graded and leveled, Eel River has proven valuable during fire season as a base of operations and staging area.
“We have a mobile kitchen unit (MKU) in this larger camp,” said Lieutenant Fred Money. “We are able to hold helicopters, logistics for CAL FIRE, and lodging for additional crews. We’ve done it twice in the seven years I’ve been here.”
According to CAL FIRE, there are 11 MKUs statewide, staffed by incarcerated crews. Within four hours of arrival, the MKU can serve 500 meals. In a single day, an MKU can feed up to 5,000 people.
MKU by the numbers
- Equipped with convection and conventional ovens, steam and tilt skillets
- MKU support trailer carries tables, chairs, salad bar set-up, and extra serving utensils
- Incarcerated crew is responsible for preparing, cooking, serving, and cleaning up after meals
- When not working in the kitchen, three correctional officers are responsible for the crew
Camp dogs are examples of new life at conservation camp
Belle, a big fluffy dog, has found a new life at the Eel River Conservation Camp. Through Pups on Parole, she was adopted but later returned.
When word went out that the dog needed a home, the camp adopted her as one of their own. Belle is friendly, exploring her surroundings with her nose, and the occasional bump against your leg. When a CDCR vehicle travels across camp, Belle runs in front, clearing a path. She also chases butterflies.
Belle joined Wishbone, the stray dog who adopted the camp seven years ago. Wishbone tends to follow the CDCR staff, but doesn’t allow anyone close enough for petting.
Learning new skills
The bathroom in the dorms were like something from the 1970s, according to Lt. Money. That is, until the incarcerated population gave it a massive overhaul.
“It was just rotting out,” Lt. Money said. “The incarcerated residents learned tile cutting and tile laying. They did all the work themselves.”
The dorms also show other improvements, using wood milled at the camp.
Using available resources, the camp has a saw mill and cuts their own lumber. One of the incarcerated residents, who has a lumber background, has taught others how to operate the mill.
“Electricity, plumbing, drywall, sheetrock and cabinetry are skills they can learn here,” he said. They can also earn diesel mechanic or water sewage plant operator certifications.
CAL FIRE Capt. Jim Mahoney said the skills learned at camp go far beyond firefighting.
“I’ve taught several guys how to sew. They repair hose flaps for engines and reupholster seats in the trucks,” he said.
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.