Prisoners help save Fallbrook homes


Last updated 11/2/2007 at Noon

Fallbrook residents who were fortunate enough not to lose their homes in the recent fire tragedy might not only want to thank the brave, dedicated firefighters of North County Fire Protection District and Cal Fire but 170 inmate firefighters from the California Department of Corrections who were trucked in from Northern California to help fight the blaze.

These inmates put forth an especially impressive effort in the Reche Road/Old Highway 395/Pala Mesa grid.

“Not only did they do a great job, but taxpayers got a lot of bang for their buck by having this resource,” said Sgt. Steve Oliveira, a supervisor with the Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation conservation camp program.

Oliveira, a 24-year veteran of the Corrections Department, explained that prisoners are only eligible for the inmate firefighter program if they were convicted of nonviolent crimes and have been deemed safe for service in the community.

“There are criteria that must be met,” Oliveira said. “If they are approved, then they must complete and maintain a physical fitness program as well as a forestry training program that is run as a joint effort between the Department of Corrections and Cal Fire.” After training has been completed, the inmate is assigned to a conservation camp.

The savings to the taxpayers for an inmate to be assigned to a conservation camp, versus being housed in a traditional prison, are significant.

“To house an inmate in a traditional prison costs taxpayers about $35,000 per year, versus $12,000 per year in a conservation camp,” Oliveira said.

When the inmates are not dispatched to a fire scene, they perform community service projects, including weed abatement and minor construction projects. In California, there are 38 male-populated conservation camps and four that house female inmates.

Oliveira, a supervisor at Growlersburg Conservation Camp in Georgetown, CA, between Placerville and Auburn, said he received the dispatch call on Sunday, October 21, shortly before 2 p.m. Understanding that they were being sent to Southern California but not sure of the exact location, Oliveira said they were instructed to report to a dispatch center in Chino for their final destination information.

“When we left Chino, we were headed to the Witch Fire; then, we were detoured to Fallbrook,” he said. “We arrived in Fallbrook late Monday morning, just as the fire here was starting to get really bad.”

Cal Fire contacted Fallbrook High School Superintendent Tom Anthony to see if arrangements could be made to house the inmate firefighters in one of the school’s gymnasiums for rest breaks. Anthony and District Business Manager Chet Gannett coordinated things on the high school end.

“They just needed an area to rest, use restrooms and shower,” Gannett said.

The inmates who assisted with Fallbrook firefighting efforts ranged in age from 21 to 50 and camped out with sleeping bags inside the gym. These men provided valuable assistance in saving Fallbrook homes.

“They fought hard during the fire around the Pala Mesa area,” Oliveira said. “The wind they were battling with the fire conditions was the biggest problem.”

Saving people’s homes made the inmates feel good.

“The rehabilitation aspect of the program is phenomenal,” Oliveira said. “Some of these men have never had a real job or felt a sense of accomplishment.”

In return for their efforts, the inmates get two days off their sentence for every day they work.

There are other benefits as well. “Generally speaking, they get better food than in the prison and they get paid $1 per hour while they are working an offsite emergency assignment like this,” Oliveira said. Wages paid inside prisons to inmate workers range between 25 and 35 cents per hour.

Of his 24 years with the Corrections Department, Oliveira has worked 18 months now with the inmate firefighter program and says it is important for the public to know the program’s value.

“The California Department of Corrections gets a bad rap; it’s important the type of work and positive aspect of what these guys do is reported on,” he said.

It is obvious that Oliveira has a distinct passion for helping rehabilitate the inmates through this program.

“The situation is that a lot of these guys have just had no guidance in their lives,” Oliveira said. “If I can just help one of them not become a re-offender, that’s good.”


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