A Cal Fire hand crew walked through a dry field when a fire sprang up, separating the groups in two. One was led by a Cal Fire captain, the only non-inmate of the group; the other group was led by the “swamper,” the second-in-command. Both had to ensure that their groups were able to get into their fireproof shelters, quickly communicating so that everyone would survive.
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Each team leader called out names, with a response of “I’m OK” from that person. After the entire group was accounted for, both the captain, Tim Swanson, and the inmate swamper radioed in Capt. Art Rodriquez that they were all safe.
In reality, it was just a training exercise. Rodriquez had been the “fire,” running in between the line of hand crew Pine Grove Four, telling them how the fire was cutting them off. He acted as proctor for the exercise, meant to test and train the hand crews as part of a two-day testing and certification exercise at Bacchi Ranch in Garden Valley for Cal Fire units in the region on April 30 and May 1.
Inmates must pass qualifications in order to obtain the coveted position of inmate firefighter. Benefits include more freedom, being in a camp instead of a jail, work pay and better food.
“We rely on a cooperative agreement with (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) for a work force,” Battalion Chief Bob Strazzo said. “It’s one of the best agreements in the country.”
Pine Grove Four, one of two juvenile groups, made up of inmates age 18 to 25, was “Probably the tightest group I’ve seen” with its practice shelters, Rodriquez said after the debriefing. He told the group that it did “Excellent, excellent.” The only problem was the swamper had his practice shelter too low when getting ready and making sure his group was in tight formation.
“It’s obvious you guys are trained in communication. If not, you did a great job,” Rodriquez said. “Really impressive.”
Swanson later told Rodriquez that the group had trained with and without him. He trained them once, and upon seeing how well they did, he said he was “not going to mess with it.”
The shelters were only practice shelters. The real ones cost about $300 each and are only usable once, Strazzo said. “Not opening one in your career is the goal,” he said. “It’s a last resort.” But, it pays to be trained in how to use them.
The Pine Grove crew comes from the CDCR Division of Juvenile Pine Grove Youth Conservation Camp in Amador County, near Jackson and about 40 miles east of Sacramento. It holds 64 juveniles, comprising four crews of 12 to 14 members each, a press release states. Last year, they responded to 58 fires and spent nearly 42,500 collective hours on fire lines. When not fighting fires, they are required to attend school to earn a high school diploma or GED. They also do community service, mostly public works projects including brush cleaning and stream cleaning to prevent fires and flooding, respectively.
At Bacchi ranch, the testing includes equipment inspection, the fire shelter drill, a four-mile hike and finally clearing brush. While they are doing that, mechanics are inspecting the vehicles used to transport the crews. The vehicles are also inspected after each incident and every 90 days — even if still out in the field.
Once qualified, the crew will basically live in the 17-seater transport, Strazzo said. While the captain will get a hotel room, the inmates will camp in sleeping bags in large tents on the ground at night and use the vehicle for transport during the day for their 24-hour shifts. “They can be out for a month,” Strazzo said. He noted they typically set up in fairgrounds but occasionally rent farmland near the fire.
During the training, the inmates will have respite in the form of lunch. The meal is served out of a mobile food unit; in this case, an airlift-capable from Valecito with five hotel pans in a steam table and running water, able to feed 500 per meal, said Cal Fire’s Mike Carneseca. He swelled with pride and said their food is “just a hair better than the private caterers” sometimes used to feed the firefighters. The Growlersburg camp, often seen fighting fires in El Dorado County, has a full trailer with stoves that can actually make food, while the Valecito unit is mostly able to reheat and cook pre-made food. It can be used as overflow for other, larger trailers such as Growlersburg’s trailer.
Just minutes after finishing its shelter drill, Pine Grove Four began its four-mile hike into Bill Bacchi’s land. Soon, members cut into brush to create a fire stop and finish the last part of the test, hopefully gaining certification to continue fighting fires.