Inmate fire crews from five North Coast conservation camps gathered at the Eel River Conservation Camp near Redway last week for three days of inspections and testing to make sure they are ready to fight fires in the coming fire season.
Twenty-five crews averaging 15 men each from five different camps in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Del Norte counties went through a simulation of a wildland fire incident, beginning with rigorous inspection of their supplies, equipment, and vehicles, and then moving out into a wildland area for tests of their preparedness, skill, and endurance.
Each crew had to make a timed hike in full gear, cut a firebreak that met a matrix of standards, and show their ability to take cover in individual and group fire shelters quickly enough to be safe if fire suddenly turns on them.
If they meet all these challenges, the crew becomes qualified as a Type 1 fire crew, ready to fight a fire.
The program is a collaboration between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which provides the crews and security, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (”Cal Fire”), which provides the training, inspection, crew captains, and support during an incident.
The two departments work together in what Lieutenant Ken Thomas, commander of the High Rock Conservation Camp near Redcrest, called “one of the successes of state government... We have a tremendous relationship.”
Captain Mike Howe, Cal Fire Unit Chief for Humboldt and Del Norte counties, explained that Cal Fire and the CDCR inmate crews also partner with many other agencies when fighting fires, including the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, and local fire protection districts (FPDs) and volunteer fire departments (VFDs).
Officially, Cal Fire is responsible for wildland fires while local FPDs and VFDs are responsible for structure fires, but during an incident they always ready to help each other as needed, Howe said. If an FPD or VFD assists in a wildland fire, Cal Fire pays them for their help, which provides much-needed revenue to small rural firefighting organizations.
Cal Fire's own firefighting staff as well as inmate crews may be dispatched to other parts of the state, and sometimes to other parts of the U.S., to help fight large, long-lasting fires. Cal Fire tries to maintain enough men and resources at home in case fires break out locally, but as Howe put it, “We fight the fire we have, not the fire we think we might have.”
Inmates are chosen for fire crews as part of CDCR's Work Incentive Program, which provides a wide range of incentives for qualified inmates willing to do community service.
In addition to firefighting, inmate crews can be assigned to service projects like clearing brush for fire prevention. Inmates who have skills like plumbing, sheet metal, or electrical work or who learn these skills while in camp can join crews on construction projects for schools and local governments.
The most important incentive is reduction of the time an inmate is required to serve. Some inmates can get a day off their sentences for each day of work, while others are restricted in the time they can get off by the terms of their sentences.
Additional incentives include pay - one dollar for each hour worked, including training - and privileges such as daily phone and laundry use, a visiting program that includes family visits in an individual lodging, a hobby program, and - one of the most important incentives - much better food than ordinary prison food.
To be eligible for the Work Incentive Program, inmates must be “model inmates.” Those convicted of violent crimes are not eligible, and inmates convicted of arson are not eligible to join firefighting crews. Bad conduct or poor work performance will result in a loss of privileges or even dismissal from the program and a return to prison.
Inmates are received and screened at the Susanville Correctional Center and then assigned to specific camps if they qualify for the Work Incentive Program.
In Southern Humboldt, the Eel River Conservation Camp has approximately 130 inmates at any given time and the High Rock Conservation Camp has approximately 110.
Tests conducted last week began with a “tool-out.” The inmates have two minutes to disembark from their buses wearing their helmets and Nomex fire-resistant suits and carrying their personal firefighting and safety gear, their fire shelter, at least four quarts of water, a freshly-packed lunch, and a “Meal Ready to Eat” (MRE) in a backpack. As they exit the bus, they are handed their tools by the lead crewmember, called the swamper.
Cal Fire officers called proctors inspect their gear and quiz them on their “10s and 18s,” the 10 standard fire orders and 18 situations that shout “Watch Out.”
”10s” include standards like, “Know what your fire is doing at all times,” and “Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively.”
”18s” include dangerous situations, such as “The wind increases and/or changes directions” and “You feel like taking a nap near the fire line.”
While crewmembers are being individually inspected, their bus gets a going-over from other Cal Fire proctors, who make sure all the safety and firefighting equipment, food, water, and first aid supplies are in good condition and in their proper place.
After this inspection the crews get on board their buses and head into the field. For the last several years, tests have taken place on part of the Satterlee ranch in the hills south of Phillipsville. Cal Fire and CDCR are extremely grateful to the Satterlee family for their help, said Suzanne Van Meter, CDCR office technician at Eel River camp and one of the information officers for last week's program.
The buses let the crews off near the Chimney Tree south of Phillipsville, and crews must then hike approximately two-and-a-quarter miles, nearly all of it uphill, wearing their full gear. They are expected to arrive at the incident staging area at the top of the ridge within 55-65 minutes after leaving the bus. Crews must maintain standards such as staying together and keeping up the pace or they lose points in the inspection.
At the top of the ridge they take a short rest before beginning the fire line cutting exercise. They are required to cut a firebreak through varied vegetation, including grass, brush, and trees, that meets specified measurements. The ground must be scraped down to “mineral soil”; that is, with no vegetation. The vegetation is all pushed to the far side of the firebreak and the scrape is constructed so as to prevent burning matter from the fire side from rolling or blowing onto the “green” side.
The saw team leads the line, cutting through brush and trees. For purposes of the exercise, all trees over six inches in diameter are left standing but in a real fire every tree in the path would be cut down if it is safe and not unreasonably time-consuming. All trees left standing are limbed to remove “ladder fuel” that can take the fire into the canopy.
Following the saw team, crewmembers remove the remaining vegetation with Pulaskis, mattock-like tools; McClouds, implements with a square-edged blade and a fork; and finally Rhinos, sharp bladed shovels at right angles to the handle. At the end of the line the “drag and spoon” man makes sure every bit of vegetation is gone, leaving only mineral soil.
Every fire is dependent on three elements, heat, oxygen, and fuel, Cal Fire Safety Officer Captain Dave Esteves explained. Remove one element and the fire stops. The inmate crews' job is to remove the fuel. “That's our bread and butter,” Esteves said, adding that in many incidents, the hand crews are the only firefighters on the scene because of the terrain, remoteness, and nature of the fire.
As part of the line cut test, a proctor will signal that an airdrop is coming in. Crewmembers must quickly find a safe place to lie down, “head towards the red” (the direction of the fire retardant drop), and hold the prescribed position until instructed to get up.
After an hour of line cutting, the crews are tested on their ability to take cover should a fire suddenly turn on them. Each man carries an individual fire shelter, a tube of fireproof material folded into the size of brick and weighing about the same as a brick.
On a signal, each man has 30 seconds to remove the shelter from below his pack, open it, crawl in, and fasten it around himself. He must position himself with “feet to the heat.”
Crews also have crew-sized fire shelters and are allowed a full five minutes to deploy them and get inside.
The crew must pass all these tests with satisfactory scores to be qualified to fight fires. The entire crew passes or fails together, but they will get another chance to pass after further training.
Crews are trained and equipped to remain on their own for as long as 48 hours. If an incident takes longer, Cal Fire provides further support, often air-dropping in fresh supplies in remote areas. Radio communications are maintained on dedicated radio frequencies so that medical or other help can be sent as soon as possible if needed. Weather conditions, including temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction, are broadcast hourly.
For larger, extended fires, Cal Fire provides a complete spectrum of support including lodging, food, showers, and medical care as needed, as well as assistance from fire engines and aircraft whenever possible.
Captain Howe noted that low rainfall during this past winter and spring means that the likelihood of wildfire is high this year, whereas there were very few serious fires in the North Coast area following the heavy rainfall of the previous two years.
Cal Fire declared the week of May 6-12 as Wildfire Awareness Week, emphasizing home preparedness for fire season, such as clearing a 100-foot defensible space around all structures, “hardening” your home with fire-resistant materials, and making sure that your personal firefighting equipment is in good condition.
More information about fire preparedness can be found at www.readyforwildfire.org.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTOS BY VIRGINIA GRAZIANI
1. Cal Fire officers inspect inmate fire crews as part of three days of testing at the Eel River Conservation Camp near Redway last week. The officer checks each man's equipment as well as his knowledge of “10s and 18s,” the 10 Standard Fire Orders and 18 situations that “shout ‘Watch Out'” in this phase of the inspection, known as “tool-out.”
2. This inmate fire crew from Alder Camp near Klamath in Del Norte County has just completed their hike, approximately two-and-a-quarter miles, uphill almost all the way. Each man is carrying between 35-45 pounds of firefighting and safety equipment. After a brief rest, the crew will begin cutting a firebreak during the inspection “incident” to qualify them as Type 1 firefighters for the 2012 fire season.
3. In the third stage of their inspection, this inmate firefighting crew cuts a line, or firebreak on a ridge near Phillipsville. To pass the inspection the completed line must be down to “mineral soil” (without a trace of vegetation) for a width of approximately one-and-a-half times the height of the adjoining fuel, among other specifications. Crews are expected to cut a line approximately 300 feet long in an hour.
4. A completed firebreak begins with a “scratch line” and then is widened to specifications, and constructed in a way that will prevent the fire from crossing the line. This line is four feet wide. The hole at center shows where the crew removed a small tree.