|Inmates lug a fire hose up a ridge in Fontana during the exercises. "This is one of the best places to be," one inmate said of the firefighting crews. "This was a blessing." (LaFonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)|
Cal Fire inmate firefighters gear up for fire season
FONTANA -- When a judge convicted Robert Sanchez in a 2005 Banning home-invasion robbery, Sanchez was looking at a bleak 10-year sentence behind bars.
But after several years of incarceration, he signed up to be a firefighter with Cal Fire's inmate crews - a move that has taken him all over the country to fight fires.
"This is one of the best places to be," said Sanchez, 34, a Morongo Indian Reservation resident. "This was a blessing. "
He's now called a short-timer because he's set to be paroled in 44days, but not before he and hundreds of other inmate firefighters go through their annual training for fire season preparedness.
Cal Fire's San Bernardino unit began several days of exercises in Fontana on Tuesday, running more than 300 inmate firefighters through timed hikes, running hoses and cutting through dense vegetation.
It's crucial this year, because conditions are extremely dry. Weather officials have said the past winter was the fourth driest in 135 years.Rod Bywater, acting chief for the Inyo-Mono-San Bernardino Cal Fire unit, said fire officials have been discussing bringing in extra fire personnel early this year.
Cal Fire usually deploys firefighters on an extra three fire engines at the beginning of June. That may change, depending on the weather and how dry the vegetation gets.
"The burning conditions are a concern for us this year," Bywater said.
Firefighters got a clear warning that this year's wildland fire danger is going to be a challenge when a 30-acre blaze ignited Saturday in Fawnskin. Wildfires don't normally start at such a high elevation this early in the season.
"It's usually the last level to dry out," Bywater said.
But the crews are ready for the challenge.
Inmates from the Pilot Rock Conservation Camp near Silverwood Lake pulled up in their buses, received inspections on the equipment stashed in their backpacks and hiked into hills covered with thick mustard plants, coastal sage and scrub oak. There, they were drilled on "hose lay" exercises, cutting fire lines and assembling fire shelters.
"We run it just like we're on an incident," said Pilot Rock Division Chief Jeff Veik.
Sanchez, who is in his fifth year of participating in the training, said the discipline and hard work involved in firefighting is what has kept him involved in the program.
He's interested in starting his own business removing trees damaged or killed by insects since he's had plenty of training in that area.
But Cal Fire does hire former inmate firefighters to join standard crews, so that's another option, he said.
"I wouldn't mind doing this as seasonal (work)," Sanchez said.