California Model, Firefighters, Rehabilitation

Chat with Lieutenant sparks fire service career

Two firefighters in blue uniforms stand on either side of a man in a correctional officer uniform.
Gabilan Camp Commander Lt. Nillson, center, with CAL FIRE Firefighters Isom Herbert , left, and Troy Senegal.

Troy Senegal’s journey from incarceration to a fire service career was full of hard work, training and persistence. It was also dotted with inspirational conversations with CDCR employees. These individuals recognized his potential and took the time to share how much the conservation (fire) camps program would benefit Senegal.

In 2001, Lt. M Nilsson was a young officer assigned to Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) on Facility C. At that time incarcerated people were coming and going from the yard and institution as a whole, largely due to disciplinary reasons. A few people caught Nilsson’s attention due to their positive behavior, including 26-year-old Troy Senegal. Senegal was in Nilsson’s unit for just over a year, later transferring to a lower-level prison.

Senegal was 23 when he was arrested. He was sentenced to 23 years and eight months for multiple counts of armed robbery. Additional in-prison offenses earned him another six years in custody. His time in prison included five years in an out-of-state facility. By the time he returned to California, he was ready for a change and looking to learn new job skills.

He arrived at California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC), where he was interested in learning construction skills. There he met Lt. Mock from Fenner Canyon Conservation Camp, who was visiting the MSF to speak to incarcerated people about fire camp.

“As a kid, I was always interested in the fire service,” Senegal said. “However, the street life shattered those dreams.”

But that conversation stuck with Senegal, who continued to develop skills and earn more privileges. As he worked, studied and stayed positive, the firefighting dream was always with him.

Conversation with Senegal ignites fire service goals

Fast-forward to 2018 where Nilsson, now Gabilan Camp Commander, was walking to the Administration Building at SVSP. He saw an incarcerated person sweeping the sidewalk. His nametag said “Senegal” and he asked Nilsson if he remembered him from Charlie Yard, which of course Nilsson did.

Nilsson congratulated Senegal on dropping his custody level from Level IV to now being eligible for the Minimum Support Facility (MSF). Nilsson told him he should make his way to fire camp. He recommended he look into a transfer to Sierra Conservation Center (SCC), where fire crew training takes place.

Those conversations inspired Senegal to make the change and become a firefighter. He transferred to Sierra Conservation Center (SCC), for Firefighter Training. He served on crews at Owens Valley, Mountain House, and Prado camps before paroling in June 2020.

“In 2019, while assigned to the Briceburg Fire, I ran into Senegal again, this time at the Mt. Bullion Base Camp,” Nilsson shared. “Senegal was proudly wearing his orange firefighter clothing and was assigned to Prado Camp. We talked for a while and he mentioned he was looking forward to paroling in the coming year.”

Fire dreams burn strong for Senegal

After his release from prison at 45 years old, Senegal was determined to join the fire service. He learned about the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP). In five months, students at FFRP receive the same training they would get in a CAL FIRE Seasonal Firefighter Academy.

(Learn more about the FFRP.)

Determined to succeed, Senegal completed FFRP and begin applying for jobs while still honing his skills and knowledge. He attended multiple classes up and down the state, including a course at Copper Mountain College. There, his career started to move in the right direction..

He joined a volunteer station with Yermo-Calico Fire & Rescue. He continued taking courses in college and attending multiple other state-required courses to join the fire service. Finally, he received a call from CAL FIRE for a Firefighter I position with the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit.

“I gladly accepted, relocated to Northern California, reported for duty and began my training as a CAL FIRE employee,” Senegal said. “Finally, my lifelong dream came true.”

A story 20 years in the making

In November 2022, Senegal called Nilsson at Gabilan Camp. He was off parole and working as a CAL FIRE Firefighter I in the Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit. Senegal asked to pay it forward by speaking to those still at camp. He asked to bring his friend Isom Herbert, also formerly incarcerated and now a Firefighter I in the Humboldt-Del Norte Unit.

“Both of them wanted to talk with the incarcerated population as someone who had walked in their shoes and show them if they wanted to change their lives, they could do it,” Nilsson said. Knowing how inspirational their journeys would be, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.

And so, in November 2022, both men drove to Gabilan Camp. They spoke with fire crew members about their personal journeys, obstacles they encountered and the rewarding outcome of turning their lives around and becoming CAL FIRE employees. They stayed afterward to answer questions and took a tour of the camp.

Senegal credits the fire camps programs for honing his firefighter skills as well as developing his traits of leadership, responsibility, teamwork and community service. He thanked CDCR and CAL FIRE for the opportunity to serve his community both during and after incarceration.

“Thank you for the opportunity to participate in one of the most outstanding rehabilitation programs ever for those incarcerated,” he said.

By Lt. M. Nilsson, Gabilan Camp Commander, Sierra Conservation Center

Learn more about the CDCR/CAL FIRE camps and firefighters.

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