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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Reading: SOUL ON FIRE About California Firefighting Prisoners - The Rim Fire Camp Crews



Photos by James Pogue, collages by Winston Smith
You always plead. Statistically speaking. There’s literally no end—today in the paper, they’ve got a quote from a guy doing life for armed robbery—to what they can do to you if you fight, and anyway most of the time they have the documents, the surveillance videos, the gun under the passenger seat, and you take what they give you. Because the number they come to you with—ten years with half, eight years at 80 percent, it’s all very baroque—is only the beginning. The higher the number, the rougher the yard, and in California, this second set of numbers—level-three yards, level-four yards—can denote their own kind of punishment.
Justin pled, and he had never heard of the Conservation Camp program when he and his wife, Kelly, were sentenced in Fresno County, California, for running a massive mortgage-fraud operation.
“They came into court wearing street clothes,” read the local ABC affiliate’s story on the hearing in which Justin was sentenced to almost ten years in prison, “but they left in handcuffs.” The article ran with a photo of the pair in court: Kelly looks straight at the judge, grim and defiant. Justin, turning abjectly toward his wife, slouching in a green polo under which protrudes a hint of potbelly, looks broken.
When I met him in August, Justin—who asked that I not use his last name—was wearing an inmate’s orange jumpsuit, though we were 20 miles from the nearest prison. He was sitting at one of the long plastic dining tables in the center of the Tuolumne City Incident Command Post, an impossibly busy firefighting base built in a park in the center of tiny Tuolumne City, on the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest in California’s Western Sierra.
A good third of the base was taken up by a series of white canvas tents, no bigger than tractor sheds, each housing 32 inmates. The rest of the base served as an operations center and home for the thousands of firefighters and support personnel working to contain the Rim wildfire, which was then exploding through the canopies of the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, its nearest edge only a few miles from our location. There were fire engines parked on the narrow streets—a precaution against the possibility that the fire might jump a nearby canyon and come rolling into town. The smoke was so thick that it burned our eyes. “My daughters basically know their parents are in prison,” Justin told me. “But if you ask, they just say, ‘Daddy’s a firefighter.’”
Justin is part of California’s Conservation Camp program—a huge but little known joint venture between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency. The program, in place since 1946, disperses some 4,200 felons from California’s notoriously crowded and dangerous prisons and relocates them to 42 camps situated in rural, fire-prone areas ranging from the Oregon border all the way down to San Diego County. Given that Cal Fire only has about 4,700 full-time employees, inmate crews like the one Justin works on represent a huge portion of the state’s firefighting capacity. Inmates spend most of the year serving their time in the camps, building parks and doing other good works, but when a fire breaks out, they’re dispatched and live in an incident base until the conflagration is contained.
Don Camp watches a stand of torching sugar pines.
Inmates are the state’s main source of so-called hand crews—the teams that do the roughest, and probably the most dangerous, work of wildland firefighting: marching deep into burning forests where big engines and bulldozers can’t penetrate. Once there, they use chainsaws and hand tools to cut what is called the containment line—basically, a trench that a fire, if all goes as planned, can’t leap over. The teams that do this work for the federal government are known as hotshots, and tend to be thought of as heroes, like the 19 Granite Mountain hotshots who burned to death last June, working a fire in Arizona.
Wildfires have been growing in size and frequency all over the west—a particular issue in California, with its huge rural and semi-urban populations scattered through forest, chaparral, and desert up and down the state. The combination brings on disasters like what’s known in Cal Fire lore as the “2003 Fire Siege” of Southern California—14 wildfires, 750,043 acres burned, 3,710 homes destroyed, a billion dollars in property damage, and 24 people killed, all in a single season.
Meanwhile, budget cuts for rehabilitation programs and new sentencing guidelines have made a fiscal and moral disaster out of the state prison system. Spending on prisons has increased by 486 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 1980, and the system is now under federal receivership after repeated court rulings finding that crowding in the prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. But California has always been a state built on easy reinvention and neat solutions, and when I first heard about the Conservation Camp program, I became enchanted with it as a typically Californian attempt to address two very 21st-century problems facing the state: taking an overabundance of prisoners and using them to tackle an overabundance of wildfires.
I recently moved to California, seeking reinvention, and I became sort of unfashionably interested in the state’s attempts to address its various policy and ecological disasters. When the Rim fire—named for the Rim of the World Vista off Highway 120, near where a hunter’s illegal campfire burned out of control in August—broke out in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the preoccupation became something like an obsession. Without waiting for a magazine assignment or even getting any assurance from state officials that I’d be able to hang out with prisoners or see the fire, I loaded up my truck and drove to the Sierra.
By the time I came to Tuolumne City, the fire had already spread at an almost unthinkable pace, shooting through the treetops in 30,000- and 50,000-acre leaps of “crownfire”—runs of flame tearing through the forest canopy. A 50,000-acre fire alone is something the US Forest Service would call a “major incident.” The Rim fire would eventually burn more than 250,000 acres, making it the third-largest fire in California history. Ecologists monitoring this section of the Western Sierra were already calling this fire “the Big One.”
An inmate getting braids at the incident base in Tuolumne City.
Ihad driven up from Los Angeles, and calling from a truck stop in Modesto, I managed to get in touch with a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) lieutenant named Dave Fish, the commander of a residential inmate camp called Baseline. He grumbled, but said I could tag along.
There were a total of 623 inmates fighting the fire when I arrived, most sleeping in the white tents at the incident base, but Lieutenant Fish had several 17-man crews living at the Baseline camp, just 20 miles down the road from Tuolumne City.
The drive from Tuolumne City to Baseline is gently gorgeous, bringing you down through oak scrub foothills and then out an old country road through gold, rolling ranchland. On the way I saw hand-drawn signs, saying things like, thank u law enforcement + firefighters and your life is worth more than my house.
If I’d had any preconceptions of a correctional institution, my arrival in Baseline camp was disorienting. I drove right through the gates, the camp looking less like a prison than a spread of ranch houses. There was no fence around the perimeter, and while there was a checkpoint at the entrance, it was unmanned and nobody searched me on my way in.
Through the gate there was a koi pond designed, built, and maintained by inmates who slept in bunkhouses arranged around the main lawn—the 17 men on a fire crew sleep together, to build camaraderie. Lieutenant Fish, midsize and extraordinarily officious, met me on the lawn.
Fish, as he’d said to call him, showed me around, and introduced me to an inmate named Washington, an astonishingly humble black guy from San Diego, 32 years old and months away from finishing a 12-year sentence for armed robbery. He spoke so softly that almost nothing he said got picked up by my recorder, and explained that the freedom of the camp surprised him at first.
“When I got here, and there’s no walls?” Washington said. “After a decade?” He, like all the inmates, underwent a qualification process for camp that takes into account the seriousness of his offense and past behavior in the prison system. Murderers, rapists, and, well, arsonists, are excluded. Most of the inmates earn two days off their sentences for every day spent in the camp, but Washington’s judge had stipulated that he serve at least 80 percent of his sentence. “Camp or no camp, man—I’ve spent my entire adult life in prison,” he said. “I’ve never even been to a 21-and-up club.”

The southern end of the Rim fire.
Contraband was a problem, Fish explained. “You can have your homies drive right up and leave a cell phone, cigarettes, drugs, whatever in the bushes. Then you can use the cell phone to plan escapes, assaults on officers, whatever. You have a cell phone in camp, you’re gone. But we get a lot of them.
“We had one guy who got busted with a phone under his sheets. An officer saw the glow. The guy jumped up, hit the officer in the face with his elbow, and just took off running. They caught him eventually. Now he’s back in prison, plus what he got for escape and assaulting an officer. You don’t last long if you don’t play by the rules here.”
Washington’s crew was gearing up to go down to the fire, so Fish and I drove back together to the incident base in Tuolumne City where we had breakfast with another lieutenant, the commander of the Mount Bullion camp, 60 miles south of us in Mariposa County. He was serving as the CDCR’s agency representative and was the closest thing to the point man for all the various camp commanders and their crews on the fire. His real name was Chris Dean, but all his inmates seemed to refer to him simply as “the Loo.” He was massive, with a shaved head, ever-present sunglasses, and a horseshoe mustache—he could have done this, or he could have been an outlaw biker, but nothing in between.
“Ask anyone in the Feds,” Fish said, as we ate hash browns, eggs, and bowls of fresh berries prepared by inmate cooks as breakfast for the whole camp. “They’ll say these guys do the same work as hotshots.”
“But then if there’s things like our laundry is getting done,” the Loo added, “and the Cal Fire guys are waiting on inmate clothes to get cleaned, you think there isn’t going to be resentment against our guys? The prisoners? So we have to watch that sort of thing. I try to get our guys to chow early, so we keep out of the way of the professionals.”
Fish then told me a story about an inmate who was killed somewhere in Southern California when a crew transport vehicle was hit by a Subaru that crossed a median. “It flipped, went down a ravine, and one guy had his skull crushed,” he said. “Now, a professional firefighter who dies like that is a hero. It’s in the line of duty. This guy who died, people see it different. But someone still has to call his mother.”
Fires create a kind of general intimacy, sort of like that of an all-male college campus—the men tend to make friends quickly and rise to anger quickly, too. While I was there, at least one inmate would lose it with his captain and get sent back to prison, and a hotshot crew from Oregon was sent home after one of its guys lost his temper and at the very least spat in an official’s face, though there were several versions of the story going around. “It’s not just the inmates that get in fights down here,” the Loo said, as we finished our meal, “though, yeah, they fight a lot.”
Fish interjected: “The thing is that it’s groups of men. Bunched together. Men fight each other.”
The Loo had a sort of intuitive wisdom beneath it all, and he was the one who surmised that I might be interested in Justin, the prisoner in for mortgage fraud, whom I met at the incident base later that afternoon. He was bald, and shy, the kind of person you imagine was probably called “sweet” a lot, growing up in Clovis, the twin city of Fresno. His parents taught at the local high school. He went on to Fresno State. He stayed in Fresno, took a job teaching junior high. He lived alone in a suburban apartment complex. He coached Little League.
Justin led what seems to him to have been a troublingly mundane existence, until he met Kelly—the woman who would become his wife and co-defendant. He was 28; she was 23 and living in his same apartment complex. She seems to have brought something out in him that he, over the next two days, found essentially impossible to explain. “She was gorgeous,” he told me. “We did everything fast. Two months after we met, she moved in with me. Two months after that, we bought a house together.” Kelly worked as a mortgage processor. “Two months after that, she introduced me to some of the people she was working for.” These men were apparently Colombians, which is all I could get him to say about it. They asked them to move down to Temecula, between San Diego and Orange County, to start an office. “We became different people,” he said. “We bought cars, houses.” I asked what sort of cars. “Oh, you know, like, Lincoln Navigators.” I wrote this down. He thought for a moment. “I also had a Lamborghini Gallardo. Also a 1957 Porsche Speedster. When you have money you do things.”
After a couple of years Justin and Kelly moved back to Fresno to start their own operation. They ran a real-estate office and signed dozens of people up for loans they couldn’t afford, or loans they didn’t even know they’d taken out. In one instance, they forged a stranger’s signature and took out a loan for a vacant parking lot in her name, according to news reports. Her bill was $1 million.
Meanwhile, they lived a slightly paradoxical existence: they went to church, he started coaching baseball again. “It was crazy,” Justin said. “There were real-estate agencies involved, title companies involved, banks involved.” At the business’s peak they had 50 employees. He looked for people who spoke fluent Spanish. “I had this desire for them to be scared of me,” he said. “We were closing multiple loans under one person’s name at one time. When they came for us they said we were targeting the Hispanic community. That’s how they prosecuted us.” They were charged with 180 counts covering all aspects of their operation, and eventually pled to grand theft and admitted to defrauding the FDIC.
They were offered a deal whereby the 16-year sentence initially offered to Justin would be reduced to nearly ten years with half the time off for good behavior, with the stipulation that Kelly plead guilty and agree to take at least two and a half years, to be served, because of crowding in the state system, in the Fresno County jail. It seems he had to talk her into it, but she took the deal, and now they communicate by letter once a month or so. “I try to tell her about where I am,” he said, “but you say things about the deer and the scenery, and she writes back, like, ‘Do you know what kind of hell I’m living in?’ So I keep some of it back.”
Justin at the head of the line with another inmate, Jonathan Portillo.
After being sentenced, Justin was temporarily sent to Wasco, a prison north of Bakersfield, where he waited to hear what permanent prison he’d be sent to for the remaining five years of his sentence. “Wasco’s no joke,” he said. “I got there and saw the gun turrets up above, under that hot sun, and I thought, This is really serious. The lucky thing was that there was a riot. A few guys got stabbed. Everyone else went to the hole, and so I basically got to keep to myself.”
He heard about the camp program from chatter in the dorms. He found out that he would have needed to serve three years on a level-three yard before he even qualified if he had been pinned with the 16-year sentence, but as it stood, he qualified immediately. He wrote the Loo letters from Wasco, asking to be accepted into the program. “You hear things,” he said, “about who’s a good commander, about where you want to be.” He was accepted into the Conservation Camp program, and a few weeks later he was sent to Jamestown for training. “So from a 16-year bid, down to ten with half, and then with the camp time off I’m down to two and a half years,” he said. “That’s love.”
We talked for hours, with the Loo sharing the table watching beneficently behind his sunglasses, occasionally offering a clarifying detail about prison life. The Loo remembered the letters when I asked him about them. He put on a slightly effeminate voice, “‘Please, Lieutenant Dean, please, please can I come to your camp?’ It was stuff like that.”
We finished and I took off for Sonora, the closest thing to a big town nearby. I’d been drinking a strict limit of six Coors every night downtown at Zane’s Iron Horse Tavern, where by that time all the regulars knew me, if not by name then at least as the faggy-looking dude in cowboy boots from LA. My routine was that I’d leave Zane’s around midnight and drive back up past the incident base to the Black Oak Indian Casino, where I gambled to earn back the beer money I’d blown, and then, because I’d come up with $239 in my bank account and a hotel was out of the question, all the prices having been driven up by the crush of firefighters, I drove up into the Stanislaus where I’d find a dirt road, drive a half mile back just for the fun of the drive, and sleep in the forest. I had been trying to conceal my way of living from Fish and the Loo, who were serious men with a serious fire on their hands, but I smelled and had a lot of trouble hiding my hangovers. They were indulgent.

A hotshot out of Arizona uses a drip torch to ignite brush. 
The next day, Fish and the Loo helped arrange things so I could tag along to watch Justin fight the fire. Or, as it turned out, to start a fire in order to fight the fire—a counterintuitive sort of hair-of-the-dog method of controlling wildfires.


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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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