What are men still serving their prison term doing in the burning woods?

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

Early on a crisp December morning, a lengthening line of orange figures labor up a serpentine trail through the craggy foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles. Now jogging, now striding, they disappear and reappear in the undulating beige terrain. Dawn mist still licks at higher peaks, yet some of the men are visibly sweating.

These are the 60-odd inmate firefighters of Holton Conservation Camp #16. Though just minutes from L.A.’s dense northern suburbs, this repurposed probation facility is a world away, nestled amidst sprawling equestrian properties and countless brushy canyons. Only occasional booms from an adjacent shooting range and garbled camp P.A. announcements puncture its incongruous tranquility.

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

“If you have to do time … this is the place to be,” said Armando Cortez, a 48-year-old father of three serving seven years for selling methamphetamine. “I mean, not only physically you get yourself right, but mentally you’re in tune with a lot of things that you weren’t with before.”

Firefighters are almost universally hailed as heroes, and perhaps nowhere more so than in L.A., where vast, voracious wildfires menace the city’s rugged edges annually. Yet even many Angelenos are unaware that alongside professional firemen on the front lines of these terrifying blazes are inmate firefighters – convicts who have volunteered to serve their sentences in remote “fire camps” where they rigorously train to respond to such disasters. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of California’s wildfire fighters are prisoners.

The 2016 fire season alone included the 41,000-acre Sand Fire in the Angeles National Forest north of L.A., and the similarly fearsome Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County, to the east, plus innumerable smaller blazes. Smoke from big burns creates an otherworldly, all-day dusk, while ash falls like dirty snow well beyond the fire zones. By night, colossal forest flames silhouette mountainous horizons against their Armageddon-esque glow.  

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

Since 1946, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has been assigning thousands of inmates to dozens of fire camps. As well as assisting state and federal government agencies with containing wildfires, these prisoners respond to floods and other natural and man-made disasters. In-between times, they help to maintain state forests and parks.

According to the CDCR, inmate firefighters currently provide approximately 3 million hours of firefighting work and 7 million hours of community work annually, saving the state’s taxpayers around $124 million per year. Los Angeles County is currently home six such camps, including one for women and a recently-revived hybrid fire/probation program for teenage boys.

In short, prisoners who can meet the harsh physical requirements of the two-week training and daily fire camp routine can trade sheer hard work for improved living conditions, better food, and less supervision than regular state prisons and county jails. For Holton’s mostly Angeleno occupants, proximity to family (and a relaxed visiting environment that includes outdoor barbecues) is also a major plus. But the most tangible incentives are the best pay in the prison system – $2 for each day in camp and $1 an hour while on the fire line – and accelerated release (most inmates earn two days of credit for each day they’re in camp).

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

Prisoners classified higher than “minimum custody” cannot volunteer for fire camp, nor can those convicted of murder, arson, rape, sex offenses or who are serving a life sentence. Medical and psychiatric issues can also disqualify a candidate, as can validated gang membership. Both inmates and staff report an absence of the “prison politics” – obligatory gang and racial affiliations and related violence – synonymous with most American correctional institutions inside the fire camps.

“Definitely less politics – hardly really no politics,” said Anthony Demyers, 27, who was sentenced to more than 13 years for a second-strike residential burglary and has previously been incarcerated in Arizona, Mississippi, and elsewhere in California. “[For] some dudes it’s harder than others, but they give you the right training, so you eventually adjust.”

They’ll work as good as any man – sometimes better.
— Foreman Greg Alley

Holton’s day begins with a 6:30 am wake-up call in its military-style dorms. A substantial breakfast is prepared by an all-inmate kitchen crew – part of a “non-grade” in-camp support staff (inmates eligible for fire camp but not fit enough to firefight) who can, through prolonged good performance, graduate to two-man or even single cells.

 At 8:30 am inmates line-up on the camp’s basketball court for roll call, after which they are transferred to the custody of Los Angeles County Fire Department, with whom they will train and work until around 4 pm, Monday through Friday. After warm-up calisthenics, they trot out of camp on a timed hike, which could be set at anything from 25 minutes to an hour. Executed in work boots and long pants, even in high summer, the stipulated times require at least partial running (repeated failure to beat the clock results in progressive disciplinary measures).

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

Holton’s 82 inmates are supervised by nine CDCR staff and 11 professional firefighters, but the atmosphere is one of trust: by night only one correctional officer is present and, despite numerous daily head counts, it isn’t difficult for inmates to simply walk away (the last such incident was in September 2015). Camp #16 Commander Lt. Armando Espinoza estimates that he sends, on average, two or three guys back to higher-custody placement for disciplinary reasons monthly.

“If you motivate ‘em and you’re honest with them and you train them … they’ll work as good as any man – sometimes better,” said Holton firefighter foreman Greg Alley of his charges, himself breathless at the top of the morning’s 40-minute hike.

One-by-one and in bunches the inmates amble toward Alley, yelling their name and crew number (Camp #16 comprises five 10 to 14-man fire crews) as they complete the hike. A few narrowly miss the 40-minute mark. Some show no sign of exertion; others’ shirts are dark with perspiration. The group is age and racially diverse (Holton has housed inmates as old as 62), and oozes a bantering, mutually-motivating atmosphere more high school cross-country meet than chain gang.

“It works on their pride – and they’re very prideful people,” said LA County Fire Camp Superintendent Lance Ane. “They wanna show everybody else that they can do it.” 

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

Back in camp, the inmates line up behind their respective “crew-carrying vehicles” (boxy buses in Fire Dept. livery). Each crew has a professional firefighter foreman; a senior “swamper” inmate, who acts as his foreman’s liaison with the other crewmembers; and a “dragspoon” at the back of the line, who comes next in the semi-formal hierarchy. Each crew’s remaining members line up in order of seniority, with each assigned a given tool, be it a chainsaw, “pulaski” pickaxe, or scraping implement.

 In a fastidiously choreographed daily drill they mount their respective truck, then alight and “tool-up” with everything they’d need to work on a fire line for up to 24 hours, including food, water and radios, within 2 minutes 30 seconds. Then it’s into the hills to work clearing “motorways” (dirt access roads for emergency vehicles), felling trees, and on clean-up projects everywhere from the tony streets of nearby Pasadena to the Hollywood Bowl.

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

But Holton crews are also on 24-hour call and, when a fire bell sounds, are often deployed right on the line of 1000-degree wildfires, laden with 35-pound backpacks, heavy tools, and cumbersome Nomex protective suits. Inmate firefighters do not spray water onto wildfires but rather work on containing them by “cutting line” – laboriously hacking and scraping miles of feet-wide firebreaks around a fire to deprive it of fuel to spread.  

During July’s nearby Sand Fire, for which Camp #16 was a temporary base for inmate fire crews from all over the state, temperatures regularly hit triple digits while these men performed this strenuous, repetitious work for hours at a time on shadeless mountainsides.

In their leisure time, Holton Camp residents are rewarded with facilities including TV, games and hobby rooms; a gym and outdoor sports facilities; a barber shop, commissary, and modest garden. Many save their earnings as a nest egg for their release; others send money to family. Inmate Cortez said he intends to start a t-shirt business upon his release, just three months away, while Demyers – who said he was just “running the streets” prior to incarceration – plans to parlay his fire camp experience into a place on a professional “hotshot” wildfire suppression crew.

Photo: David Kleeman

Photo: David Kleeman

 *** 

A dozen miles northeast of Holton, the upper slopes of 6,500-foot Mount Gleason are fit for a 5-star spa-resort, with staggering views across the Angeles National Forest and high desert beyond. Yet this is the site of the original Camp #16, which was surely America’s most picturesque prison before being overrun by the famously vicious, 250-square-mile Station Fire in 2009 (Holton became the replacement Camp #16  thereafter).

Amidst the abandoned camp’s scorched remains sits its gutted chow hall – the facility’s supposed “safety zone” - where more than 50 inmates and foremen huddled, prayed and prepared for death before fleeing just as its roof collapsed from the inferno. Two of their leaders, Capt. Ted Hall and Foreman Arnie Quinones, perished in an attempt to stem the flames’ march toward their men. Today, the lonely cluster of blackened buildings delivers an eerie reminder of the very real dangers faced by inmate firefighters and the professional firemen with whom they work so closely. Yet prisoners at Holton camp expressed no bitterness at their efforts going largely overlooked.

“It’s nice to see that the community, the kids and stuff, do little posters and stuff when we go to a base camp – ‘Thank You Firefighters’,” said Cortez. “They might put that up there thinking that it’s the guys in the red engines … but I kind of include myself, ‘cos I’m doing the same thing they’re doing.”

Original site of Camp 16. Photo: Paul Rogers

Original site of Camp 16. Photo: Paul Rogers