Firefighters prove they’re ready at Ishi Preparedness Exercises
Meet the inmate firefighters of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), men and women selected to join CAL FIRE and local crews in battling wildfires throughout the state. CDCR’s Conservation Camps program started in 1946 with the opening of Rainbow Camp in Fallbrook, and today more than 4,000 inmate firefighters work from 42 adult camps and one camp for juvenile offenders throughout the state.
Each year, CAL FIRE holds the annual Preparedness Exercises at Ishi Camp, where nearly 50 inmate fire crews undergo drills on safety, physical conditioning and firefighting knowledge. Throughout the day, crews are tested on their knowledge of tools, ability to deploy emergency shelters and their physical ability, culminating in the 4.2-mile hike and brush-clearing exercise.
The crews are also tested on safety, from wearing the appropriate gear to packing enough drinking water. While the crews are expected to complete the hike within 75 minutes, they must also take care not to over-exert themselves.
During a fire, inmate crews are primarily tasked with clearing brush to stop the flames from spreading. Crews use picks, shovels, axes and chainsaws to tear intensely flammable brush down to bare mineral soil, fighting the clock as flames spread.
“Without these guys out there cutting that line, a lot of fires would get a lot bigger,” observed CAL FIRE Capt. Tim Rader. “They go into areas that nobody else wants to go into, or that dozers are not able to get into. Without them, these fires would not stop.”
Rader, who has been working with inmate crews for six years, said when the men and women first arrive at camp, it’s often the first time they’ve ever seen the woods. Training begins with getting crews acclimated to being outdoors and exercising, beginning with short hikes and working up to longer treks.
In the classroom, inmate firefighters learn the terminology of the trade, how to stay safe on the job, first aid, map reading and fire behavior, followed by 29 hours of field training in tools, fire shelters, mop-up and fitness. Inmate firefighters are paid for their work, and earn extra credit for time served when on the fire line.
“It’s very helpful to have the crews there assisting us,” said Fire Prevention Specialist Cheryl Buliavac. “The manpower that they bring is unbelievable — the hard work, just having them there to help with cutting a hand line, getting the brush clear so the firefighters can get the hose in.
When not fighting fires, inmate fire crews participate in community service and conservation projects such as clearing fire breaks, restoring historical structures, park maintenance, sand- bagging and flood protection and clearing fallen trees and debris. This work, combined with manpower on the fire lines, saves California taxpayers millions of dollars each year.
“They’re the backbone of our department when we get to our large incidents, because as the incidents grow it takes a huge workforce,” said Dave Russell, CAL FIRE Division Chief at Ishi Camp.
Robert Shelton, a firefighter at Intermountain Conservation Camp #22 in Lassen County, said that for him, fighting fires and doing service projects is a chance to give back.
“I’ve been a liability for a lot of years, and it finally feels good to give something back to the community and improve myself,” he said.
Shelton commented on the brotherhood of camp, where racial and social backgrounds fall away. Living and working together, the firefighters become a family of sorts, relying on one another to get the job done.
“You get to work together as a team, and it’s no longer black, white or Mexican,” he said. “It’s all one unity. You’re just one orange caterpillar and you have to work together to get up the mountain.”