Thursday, May 1, 2008

CDCR's Inmate Firefighters Prepare for the 2008 Fire Season

Conservation Camp Program benefits the State year round, saves tax dollars

PAYNES CREEK – James Tilton, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and other CDCR administrators were among the guests who observed the more than 700 inmates who participated in today’s annual Fire Preparedness Exercise at Ishi Camp in Tehama County. The exercise also allowed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to evaluate inmate firefighter crews’ physical conditioning, firefighting knowledge, safety performance and readiness for the 2008 fire season.

“Since 1946, the Conservation Camp Program has provided California with a well trained, well equipped workforce for fire suppression and other emergencies. The crews andthe staff who supervise them are ready to respond to wildfires and other emergencies,” Tilton said.

Tilton noted that nearly 600 inmate firefighters responded to last week’s Santa Anita Fire in Los Angeles County and that last fall, more than 3,000 inmates fought the firestorms in Southern California.

“This program and our long-standing partnership with CAL FIRE is the backbone of the state’s fire response. In 2007 alone, we conservatively estimate the inmate fire crews put in more than three million person hours fighting fires and responding to other emergencies, saving California taxpayers more than $50 million,” Tilton said.

There are 42 adult conservation camps statewide with more than 4,400 offenders in the program. CDCR jointly manages 37 adult camps with CAL FIRE. Five adult camps in Southern California are jointly managed with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

When not responding to fires and other emergencies, crews put in millions of hours every year working on fire reduction and conservation projects and providing forest, range and watershed enhancement on public lands.

“The crews work year round to reduce fire hazards by clearing brush, weeds and other vegetation and constructing fuel breaks. They also do other conservation projects including trail rehabilitation and restoration, removing invasive plant species, and improving levees. This is an enormous benefit to state, county and federal government agencies and to our communities,” Tilton said.

Fire crews provide maintenance at state parks, forests, beaches and veterans’ homes; restore trails; and build signs, picnic benches and tables at state and local parks. In addition, fire crews provide community service work to local and volunteer fire departments, local schools, cemetery districts, and fish hatcheries and clean up highways, parks, beaches and campgrounds.

The inmates assigned to the camps participate in vocational education programs including sawmill and lumber yard operations, carpentry and woodworking, automotive maintenance and repair, welding, silkscreen printing, and making signs. And they participate in other rehabilitative programs, including substance abuse treatment, pre-release, and religious programs. Many camps raise funds to help feed the hungry, deter kids from crime and support local non-profit organizations.

Inmates assigned to the Conservation Camp Program are carefully screened and medically cleared. They must be physically fit and are evaluated on their emotional and intellectual aptitudes and criminal history. Inmates convicted of kidnapping, arson, or sex offenses are excluded from the program.

The average sentence for adult inmates selected for camp is less than two years and the average time they spend in camp is eight months. They earn about a dollar an hour fighting fires and earn two days of credit off their sentence for every day they participate in the program.

After being selected for camp, inmates go through two weeks of physical fitness training followed by an additional two weeks of training in fire safety and suppression techniques. During their training, they are constantly being evaluated for their overall suitability to continue in the program. Those who do not pass the evaluation are sent back to a state prison.

“In these tough budget times, it is noteworthy there is a program that provides so many benefits. The Conservation Camp Program provides the state with a fully trained workforce able to immediately respond to fires and other emergencies. The program saves tax dollars. We are able to enjoy the beauty of California at our parks and beaches. Our highways are clean. And inmates are better prepared to return to their communities when they are released to parole, enhancing public safety,” Tilton said. “My hat is off to the hardworking CDCR and CAL FIRE employees who make this program a success.”

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About Ishi Conservation Camp:
The annual fire preparedness exercise for Northern California is held at the Ishi Conservation Camp, which opened in April 1961. It is located in Tehama County, 25 miles east of Red Bluff. It houses 110 male minimum-custody inmates who make up five 17-man fire crews. The remaining inmates serve as cooks, porters, landscapers, launderers, clerks, maintenance, and other support activity workers. The camp is staffed with 10 CDCR correctional staff including officers, sergeants and one lieutenant who is the camp commander. CAL FIRE staff assigned to the camp include 10 fire crew captains, two heavy fire equipment operators, one office technician, one water sewer plant operator, and one assistant chief also known as the division chief. During 2007, the Ishi Conservation Camp provided 216,592 hours of project and conservation work and 125,942 hours fighting fires and floods.