Inmates from the Bautista, Norco and other Cal Fire Riverside Unit California Conservation Camps have undergone their strenuous final field tests and learned if their firefighting crews will be assigned to fight the expected extreme wildfires expected this summer in Southern California.
The annual Cal Fire Preparation Exercise was conducted last week on the Ramona Cahuilla Indian Reservation near Anza. The exercise involved four test drills to determine if California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Cal Fire District 5 inmate firefighting crews can exhibit their ability to safely suppress wildland fires. The crews, ranging from 11 to 17, were in the four-stage exercise observed and rated in their ability to hike, construct hand lines utilizing hand tools, deployment of fire shelters to prepare for a life-threatening burn over situation and other drills.
In a special “media day” Thursday, April 20, Division Chief-Northwest Office Riverside County Fire Department Silvio Lanzas, told news representatives that the Riverside exercise was being conducted this year at the Ramona Cahuilla Reservation because they are expecting an “extreme” fire year in the Anza Valley.
Lanzas said the area of the exercise was partially chosen because of the terrain.
“Up here at this elevation we have the grass culminated with the older more mature dead brush so, up here in the Anza Valley, we have the potential for a large fire — Bautista Canyon, all those areas– where we are at is the area where the brush and grass has dried has the potential for a fire is there,” Lanzas said. “It is extreme out here.”
Lanzas indicated that they expect it to be a “very active” fire season in all of Riverside County attributing to the rapid growth of the grass in the rainy months.
“It is curing now and drying out very soon,” he said, looking at the steep hillside next to the staging area.
During the media day, 40 inmates and 12 regular firefighters underwent the testing. There were two crews from the nearby Bautista Canyon Conservation Camp and one from the Norco camp. Earlier in the week the remaining 14 Riverside District 5 crews underwent the wildfire preparedness exercise and evaluation.
Lanzas explained there are four major components to the annual Fire Preparedness Exercise. They include the unloading and tool out for each crew. This requires each crew member to make sure his tools are ready for use; he has enough water for the trek to the fire scene, first aid packs, his fire shelter, tool repair and maintenance kits and other items that may save his life or help his task.
The second component was a rigorous full-geared, two-mile hike up a very steep, once burned over hillside, a short rehabilitation time to drink water and return under 60 minutes.
Upon their return from the hike, they undertake a simulated “burn over” where a fire is burning over them and the deployment of their life-saving fire shelters. They need to follow their emergency burn-over rules to perfection.
They have only a short time to rehab, before they were off for another half-mile hilly hike to a “cut” area. On arrival, they ready their chain saws and tools to cut through 1,500 feet of heavy brush, manzanita and any other vegetation or obstacles in their way to clear a 4-foot wide fire line with a center trench, all in 90 minutes or less. Each crew member needs to cut 30 feet an hour to keep up with the other crewmembers.
In each component, experienced Cal Fire firefighters evaluated the crews determining their readiness for the fire season fast approaching. During an actual wildfire, regular firefighters will be seen wearing yellow turnouts while inmates wear orange outfits.
Lanzas said if any of the crew fails to complete a task in the exercise he will go through a “remediation” process to retrain and meet the crew requirement. He said to be a member of a firefighter crew the inmate must not have been convicted of major crime, particularly arson, be physically fit and have a good record. The assignments, he said, are competitive and considered a “privilege” for the inmates.
It usually takes a least a year of in-camp training and passing the wildfire preparedness exercises before an inmate can join a crew at a live fire. The inmate does receive a small stipend of $2 per hour for each hour on a fire.
Lanzas said it may be difficult for an inmate, depending upon his felony conviction, to obtain a firefighter job with a fire department, “but some agencies do hire former inmates.”
Lanzas said they were particularly thankful to the Ramona tribe for letting Cal Fire to use their lands next to Table Mountain for the intensive exercise. Several members of the Ramona Tribal Council were on hand to observe the exercise and were pleased at what they saw.
Lanzas said the annual Wildfire Preparedness Exercises are held at different locations in Riverside County District 5 with many being held on Native American lands because they have the terrain needed for the training. This year they choose the Ramona tribal land because of the current grassland conditions in the area that will become extremely vulnerable to wildfires in the hot and dry summer months coming.
He urged all area residents in the foothill and mountain areas to make sure their homes and surrounding properties are made “fire safe” with 100 or more feet of defensible space between dry brush, trees and grasses and their homes or businesses.