Thursday, July 24, 2008

Growlersburg Conservation Camp:Where Fighting Fires is Just Part of The Mission

Growlersburg Conservation Camp is featured on an upcoming episode of KVIE California Heartland, first broadcast in the Sacramento region in July. The episode is available to view online at http://www.californiaheartland.org/ and will air on statewide PBS affiliates in late August and September.

Inmates learn sawmill operation, finish carpentry, heavy construction, and even gardening skills at the mountain camp
GEORGETOWN - Set high in the mountains above the South Fork of the American River, a piece of the “Wild West” still clings to life in the form of a small town called Georgetown.

Dating back to the Gold Rush, when thousands of emigrants descended upon the Sierra Nevada foothills looking for their fortunes, Georgetown today has not quite shaken that frontier look.

Just down the street, set in the tall pine trees, you will find the Growlersburg Conservation Camp, which supports CAL FIRE’s operations while teaching inmates valuable skills.

CDCR’s Lt. Mike Hernandez oversees the inmate population, while CALFIRE’s Division Chief, Kelly Keenan, oversees the firefighting efforts. For both, their goal is to run an efficient, effective camp.

“We oversee the custody of 132 inmates, and we aim to run a very clean operation,” said Lt. Hernandez. “The barracks are clean. The kitchen is clean. Vehicles, even uniforms are clean. It helps us maintain a level of respect and discipline which is so necessary when inmates are deployed out in the field.”

“CAL FIRE owns approximately 80 acres of land around this camp,” said Keenan. “Inmate crews maintain the forest and keep the roads cleared. When time allows, we transport crews out into the community to complete projects at parks, schools and even other fire departments.”

Sawmill operation, firefighting, fuels reduction and even working on a “crew” are valuable skills the inmates learn, and hopefully will be able to continue once they are released. These are skills learned over a period of months, and in some cases, years. Often, the day-to-day tasks are very physically demanding, whether it is working in a remote forest fighting a fire, or moving heavy lumber stacks in the camp sawmill.

Growlersburg Camp offers spiritual services and recovery programs for inmates that are provided by community volunteers. With these benefits, inmates quickly learn that life in a conservation camp is preferable to life behind the walls of a prison. It is estimated that camp emergency response to fires, floods, and project work, the inmates provide a cost avoidance of $80 million dollars to the taxpayers of California each year.

Inmate crews perform valuable fire prevention tasks including fuel reduction, road maintenance and park maintenance. A handful of inmates maintain a garden and greenhouse, year-round, which produces vegetables that supplement inmate meals at the camp. The sizable garden reduces the camp’s food purchase expenditures, while providing a nutritious variety for the inmate meals.

When they are not fighting fires, a variety of tasks are assigned to the crews.

On June 4, Crew #2 had deployed to the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, in Placerville, to help the county crews prepare for the upcoming fair and rodeo. Crew # 3 was sent to Cameron Park to help reduce a fire danger around the Pine Hill nature preserve. Crews # 4 & # 5 were deployed to perform maintenance tasks at nearby CAL FIRE station houses, and were busily gearing up for what may prove to be another dangerous fire season in El Dorado County.

Back at camp, Crew #1 converted huge Ponderosa pine logs into usable lumber, and then hand-crafted the lumber into picnic tables and park benches. Growlersburg benches are built to last, with planed, smooth, 4 x 12 planks. The benches are held together with industrial-grade steel bolts. Hewn from trees salvaged from state and federal forests, you won’t find this type of lumber at your local supplier. The timber stock is a clear pine more reminiscent of an antique store or Gold Rush corral.

“You can see why the parks and schools like our product,” said Brian Eagan, CAL FIRE Captain for Crew #1. “Each table is built to last, and they even come in children’s sizes. We make everything from start to finish, right here in camp.”


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