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Thursday, December 29, 2011

CAL FIRE: Camarillo camp closing, crews consolidating with Pine Grove

 Juvenile offender fire camp closing

A Camarillo camp where juvenile offenders have been trained to fight fires will close Friday, leaving only one similar camp open in California, authorities said Wednesday.

Youths who have been trained at the camp will be reassigned to a camp known as Pine Grove in Amador County in Northern California.

At its peak, the Camarillo camp, known as the S. Carraway Public Service and Fire Center, housed five fire crews, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

Each crew has about 15 members assigned to it.

But state laws severely limited the number of inmates the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo was able to provide the local fire training camp. The laws limit state youth prisons to housing those who have committed serious crimes, including sexual offenses.

"It got to the point where there were only enough members for one fire crew," Berlant said.

Rather than continue to operate the Camarillo camp, state officials decided to consolidate the training at Pine Grove.

Those trained at the Camarillo camp were sent to fight local fires, some of them quite big, said Bill Nash, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. They included the Zaca wildfire in 2007, which burned more than 240,000 acres, making it the state's second-largest fire in recorded history.

State officials stressed Wednesday that Cal Fire will continue to provide fire protection to the region around Ventura County. Firefighting recruits instead will be trained at a fire camp run by the California Conservation Corps, also in Camarillo, Berlant said.

Cal Fire operates 39 fire training camps across the state, Berlant said, and the Camarillo and Pine Grove sites have been the only ones confined to underage criminals.

Underage inmates are prohibited from being trained in a camp where adult offenders also are being trained, Berlant said.

The consolidation of the Camarillo camp with the one in Northern California means about 90 juvenile offenders will be housed at Pine Grove, state officials said Wednesday.

The camp is about 40 miles east of Sacramento in the Sierra foothills.

The juvenile detention facility in Camarillo also had seen a decline in inmates it could provide for fire training because of a law passed in the mid-1990s under which underage inmates were housed at county-run facilities rather than those operated by the state, said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"The philosophy was that juvenile offenders would do better when they are closer to their families," Sessa said. "That started a very steep decline in the population of youthful offenders held by the state."

A law passed in 2007 further limited the number of underage inmates held by the state. The law required that a larger share of such inmates be ones who have committed serious crimes. But inmates convicted of serious crimes are ineligible to be sent on firefighting assignments, limiting the local detention center's ability to supply recruits.

As a result of the two laws, the population of state juvenile prison system dropped from around 10,000 in the mid-1990s to about 1,100 statewide today, Sessa said.

The Camarillo facility houses 383 inmates.

Sessa said the Camarillo facility will remain open.

As to what will happen to the fire training camp, which is adjacent to the Camarillo facility, Berlant said state officials have yet to decide.

"The site has some buildings on it, and we're still in the process of seeing what will happen to it," Berlant said.

Cal Fire's training camps across the state are operated with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Together, they hold about 196 fire crews, according to Cal Fire.

These crews not only fight wildfires, but also help out after floods as well as in search-and-rescue operations.

In total, these fire crews account for more than 2.5 million hours of emergency response work a year, according to Cal Fire.

Crew applicants are screened not only for physical fitness, but also for emotional and intellectual aptitude. They also cannot have been convicted of arson.

These crews "have become California's storm troopers," according to a Cal Fire brochure.


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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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