The Orange Angels as they are affectionately known to our readers who suggested the AVA give a great big shout-out of appreciation to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) inmates who volunteer to fight wildfires with CalFire Conservation Camps at Chamberlain Creek and Parlin Fork on Highway 20. Unfortunately, we can’t say that in every case the inmates are Mendocino locals because the volunteers are distributed throughout the state system and are just as likely to be assigned to Sonoma County or even down in San Diego County where fires are also burning at this time. But wherever they hail from here’s to you guys and gals. And let’s not forget that at least 200 are women inmates, and all are deserving of recognition as we’ve been told that as many as 1700 of them worked 72 hours straight through beginning Monday, October 9th when the midnight firestorm first broke out and swept through Potter Valley and Redwood Valley.
According to CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa, “These people are firefighters before they are inmates and they are out there doing as heroic a job as all 8,000 of these guys. They have already gone beyond what most of us have to give and they’re still going.”
“These are the Marines of the fire service,” Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Division Chief Jeff Johnson said. “When the hose can’t get stretched any more, or the bulldozer can’t go in, or even the helicopter can’t reach, these guys have to hike in and physically put a line around the fire to contain it.”
The CDCR volunteers get paid $2 per day and $2 per hour when on the fire line; they also earn two days off their sentence for every day on the line or working other conservation camp projects, such as clearing brush. They take risks like any other firefighter and there have been two fatalities this year, one man died of a cut from a chainsaw in San Diego County in May and another was killed by a falling tree fighting a fire near Hoopa in Humboldt County in July. There has been one injured fireman so far in the Redwood Complex fire, but we do not yet know the particulars on that incident.
The program is restricted to non-violent, low-level inmates and as a result of Prison Realignment and Proposition 47, both of which reduced the number of low-level offenders serving time in CDCR. Arsonists are not eligible to volunteer, neither are sex offenders, nor yet anyone with a history of using force to escape. In 2008 there were 4334 volunteers statewide, and this year only 3740, a drop of 13% – but still, that is about 30% of the total force of volunteer firefighters, the others get something like minimum wage and as a result the state saves from $90 to $100 million per year in labor costs for firefighters – this year will probably exceed that amount – so it is not just the people whose homes have been saved who profit from these Orange Angels, the Marines of the fire service – we all do!
AVA readers have voiced to this reporter the desire to show their appreciation in more tangible ways, such as buying the crews a sandwich or putting money on their commissary books, but it seems impractical since it’s difficult to know who was working where and when. One reader who wishes to be known only as “Flo” said she wanted to show her appreciation to the inmates who saved her house in Redwood Valley, but again it is unlikely that anyone wishing to remain anonymous could make a cash gift to a crew of inmates whom we have no way of identifying.
The crews generally consist of 12 to 14 firefighters and a fire captain, and there were at least 19 crews deployed in the Redwood-Potter Valley incident area. Also, the crews do not necessarily come from the Chamberlain Creek conservation camp or the one at Parlin Fork on Highway 20. I spoke with the duty sergeant at Chamberlain Creek, but he was unable or unwilling to give me any information on the status of the crews stationed there. This is not surprising – the days when a desk sergeant would talk freely with a newspaper reporter are so far in the past that you would have to be over 65 to even recall such a phenomenon — or even believe it ever existed, when all info in this day and age has to be disseminated through a public relations professional especially trained to deliver minimum-information generalities.
The inmates themselves have said a few things to reporters that I found on line, such as Joshua Coover who told the East Bay Times, “Working all night to clear away hazardous vegetation gives you the best feeling in the world.” And Travis Reeder told The Daily Beast, “This is the first time my family has been proud of me!”
Some of these inmates go on to become professional firefighters after they serve their time and get out of prison, so it is not exactly “slave labor” as a recent candidate for office commented during his campaign. And the firefighters eat pretty darn good at the camps. Of course they’re burning a lot more calories, humping a 40 to 60 pound pack, and working vigorously with hand tools like shovels, rakes, and axes in dangerous conditions, frightful temperatures and rough terrain.
At any rate, here’s to you, all you Orange Angels, all of us here at the AVA are going to raise a glass to you guys and gals out there on the fire line, giving your best for Mendoland. Cheers! Hip-Hip Hooray!