The County Voice

San Bernardino County: Inmate Fire Crew Program
California Counties' Best Practices

In the southwestern corner of sprawling San Bernardino County, hard against the San Bernardino mountains, there’s a rustic old fire camp. It’s almost quaint when you first see it, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the crews training there are engaged in serious business. They are training to fight wild land fires in the rugged mountains just to the north—and with the drought in its fourth year, they are already busy.

When they are not actually fighting fires, the young men at the camp keep busy doing calisthenics, hiking the mountains and learning the proper use of chainsaws and a hand tool known as a “Pulaski”—part axe and part hoe. They have the easy camaraderie and slightly macho attitude common to young men doing difficult, dangerous work. What is not apparent from the camp or its occupants is that the camp is run by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, and the young men learning to fight fire are all inmates.

They’ve been convicted of minor offenses typically, nothing violent, and they have to earn the privilege of being at this camp, and doing this work. Compared to staying in the main jail, where the conditions and rules are stricter and the inmate population includes a more serious brand of criminal, living at the fire camp and fighting fires in the mountains is a privilege. What’s more, for many of these young men, it’s a way up and a way out.

Most of them will earn a certificate in wild land firefighting. The skills and training they are getting could lead to a job with CalFire or the US Forest Service or maybe with a local fire department.  But in addition to job skills and learning how to work as a team member, they are gaining pride, a sense of accomplishment and hope for the future.

So, we could talk about the preventative work they do, clearing brush and making firebreaks. We could talk about the homes and business they protect. We could talk about how this is still very early in the season and they have already been on the fire lines dozens of times. We could talk about the money this program saves for San Bernardino County. But really, the program is about offering these inmates a second chance. Fighting wild fires is great. Giving these young men a positive purpose is even better.

CSAC is producing a series of videos and blog postings highlighting California Counties’ best practices. The programs we are spotlighting are the 2014 recipients of our annual Challenge Awards, which recognize the innovative and creative spirit of California county governments. The Challenge Awards provide California’s 58 counties an opportunity to share their best practices with counties around the state and nation. The Call for Entries for the 2015 CSAC Challenge Awards has been distributed; the entry deadline is June 26, 2015. 

To view a video about San Bernardino County’s Inmate Fire Crew Program, click here.

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