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By Alex Groves
Associate Editor 

Inmates practice fire preparedness skills during Wildland Preparedness Exercise near Hemet


Last updated 4/25/2018 at 2:30pm

Shane Gibson

Inmate fire crews arrive at Bautista Canyon and begin their tool out exercise during the annual Wildland Preparedness Exercise, April 18.

Inmate firefighter crews were showing off their tools, digging fire lines and practicing drills for a training exercise southwest of Hemet last week.

Crews from Riverside County's three inmate camps participated in the annual Wildland Preparedness Exercise Wednesday, April 18, on Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indian land.

The event, part of a certification process for inmates and their supervisors, makes sure the inmates are prepared to go out and fight wildfires.

Seventeen fire crews comprised of both new and experienced inmate firefighters from the Bautista Camp, Oak Glen Camp and Norco Camp were working on getting their certifications.

The training was four-pronged and involved a tool inspection, a 45-minute hike, a practice deployment of fire shelters and fire line cutting, according to Andrew Bennett, a Cal Fire Battalion Chief for the Oak Glen Conservation Camp.

Inmates arrived on the Ramona Band land by buses and began with their "tool out." They left the bus and lined up in order, ready for inspection with their various hand tools as well as two chain saws.

After the "tool out" the crews hiked in varying terrain from a gradual climb to a steep climb then a gradual descent to a steep descent.

For their third exercise, crews were given mock fire shelters and told to deploy them. The crews first did a mock scrape of the ground, pretending to remove any flammable vegetation on the ground before laying down and quickly pulling the shelters over top of themselves.

For their final task, crews trudged deep into brush to start clearing vegetation and creating bare dirt paths, or fire lines. In a real fire situation, the lines are used to help contain a fire.

Two firefighters used the chain saws to cut away trees and denser plant materials. The rest of the firefighters followed behind, clearing grasses and smaller plants with their tools.

Bennet said there's a competitive element to the line cutting, with each crew trying to cut more line than the others that are also participating.

In an event of a real fire, Bennett said, the crews know that they actually need to pace themselves.

"The inmates they know they're going to be out here for 24 hours and so they're not going to go gangbusters for the first hour and then be nonproductive for the next 23 hours," he said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), currently operates 39 conservation camps across the state that house more than 4,300 inmates. The inmates have been a resource in all of California's major disasters over the last few years including fires, floods, heavy snows and earthquakes, according to Cal Fire officials.

"We have just short of 200 fire crews in the state of California working for us, so they are a very huge part of our workforce," said Cal Fire Division Chief Steven Beach. "We rely on them for a lot of the very backbreaking manual labor, and it provides them an outlet to learn some skills."

Beach said that in addition to learning, inmate fire crews make a little bit of money for their efforts and they also get to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Anthony Garcia of the Norco Camp was among inmate firefighters getting his certification for the year. Garcia has actually been an inmate firefighter since 2016.

Shane Gibson

Inmate fire crewmen begin their hike to be evaluated in rugged terrain in Bautista Canyon during the annual Wildland Preparedness Exercise, April 18.

Garcia said that one of his favorite memories so far was from last fire season, when he and others in his crew were helping to fight a fire that was threatening a nearby homes. He said people in that community were very appreciative of his crew's efforts.

"People were coming by and thanking us and actually shaking our hand and that was the first time I actually felt like I gave something back and it was positive," Garcia said.

Garcia said the inmate crews form a tight-knit bond and watch out for each other when they're working.

"(When) we're out there on the fire line we definitely look out for each other as brothers and if one needs anything, the other one is there to help him out and we have a saying that we're only as strong as our weakest link," he said. "So the slowest guy, that's how fast we are. We always wait for each other and make sure everybody is safe."

See more photos here.

Alex Groves can be reached by email at [email protected]


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