Soul on Fire

California Is Burning—Can a Motley Crew of Prisoners Save It?

By James Pogue

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.

I had 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.

I showed up at the incident base at about ten in the morning and met a large, serious Cal Fire officer named Don Camp, who they’d asked to take me to try to locate Justin’s crew at work. We set off in his Cal Fire Chevy Silverado, and went off-road to find them, following a path cut by a bulldozer deep into the odd mix of forest that makes up the Western Sierras’ lower montane, the forest zone that comes before you hit the real high alpine country—we rolled past Ponderosa pine and incense cedar, black oak, and manzanita, as we plowed through the forest.

We drove for three hours and spent long stretches unable to find ourselves on the maps drawn up and issued every day back at the command post. Our Incident Action Plan, drawn up and issued every day like the maps, warned us that if the main fire—a couple miles away—plumed up, it could shoot sparks or small flames through the air and into the brush surrounding us, sparking smaller fires. If that happened, these so-called spot fires and the main fire would, looking for fuel and heat, tend to want to merge, burning out anything in between. This would, in the universally understated phrasing of wildland firefighters, “cause problems for us.”

We eventually found Justin’s crew, miles from the nearest road, working on what’s called a firing operation—which it to say that they were lighting a man-made fire to send back toward the main fire. The goal of this was to burn out at least some of the dry fuel between us and the main fire, so that, should the Rim fire reach this point, all of the trees and brush that might help fuel it would already be burned up.

This stretch of forest was by now the critical front. The fire had been held everywhere else except for a rocky and uninhabited region called the Emigrant Wilderness, where it was likely to burn out on the rocks. But here it was marching toward a stretch of containment line protecting a string of towns along Highway 108.

The fire command was worried that the line of bare ground protecting the road—the containment line—cut by inmate crews and bulldozers through the forest might fail to stop its advance, which could lead to nearby towns going up in flames. Making matters worse, the Incident Action Plan warned us that the moisture levels of the forest’s so-called thousand-hour fuels—mature trees that could theoretically burn for weeks—was down to a preposterously low 6 percent, creating a situation in which full-grown evergreens had the potential to explode like stands of dry brush.

A hotshot walks past an already burned section of the Stanislaus National Forest.

Justin was leading a crew of inmates that stretched along the containment line. He had just been made the crew’s swamper—the prestige position on a crew, the guy responsible for relaying his captain’s orders and keeping his fellow inmates in line. We shook hands, and it became a bit of a party when I took out the camera and started photographing—he and the crew hamming it up and crowding around as stands of Manzanita exploded in flame behind us. There were a couple young gangbangers from Echo Park and Boyle Heights, near where I live in Los Angeles, and we got into a detailed conversation about the Dodgers’ playoff chances. The disruption caused Justin and me to be yelled at by Don and the team’s leader that day, a Cal Fire captain named Barajas.

Barajas, a gentle guy from Monterey Park in Los Angeles was, along with Justin and two other Cal Fire captains running the burning operation, the only supervision the crew had. There were no guards, and the Loo and Fish were back at the Incident Base. “When you get a guy messing around, causing trouble,” Barajas told me, “a lot of the time I don’t even have to deal with it. I mean, I can’t deal with it. We give these guys weapons.”

As evidence, Barajas motioned to the inmates, who were now aligned behind Justin, marching in military order and carrying an armory of hand tools fit for a peasant revolt. It was hard to decide whether the situation was a wonderful advertisement for human nature or the product of some spirit-crushing effect the system had worked upon the men. Probably it was a combination of the two.

“A lot of times, a guy who’s acting up will come back the next day with bruises everywhere,” Barajas continued. “And he says he fell in the shower. That means the other guys gave him a beating. They really want to do well here. And if something goes wrong, people can die.”

To get here, the crew had come down a steep set of forest roads, approaching the northern front of the fire from Highway 108, and when they’d reached a point where their crew transport vehicle couldn’t push on any farther, they marched, each carrying a pack weighing as much as 50 pounds, and wearing bright-orange Nomex fire-retardant gear. They were working a 24-hour shift—standard for Cal Fire crews—with no guarantee that they’d get a chance to sleep that night. Sometimes crews work for three days straight without leaving a wildland operation. “After three days,” Barajas said, “they’re required to have a shower.”

Captains like Barajas, in theory, have nothing to do with corrections. If an inmate went for a bathroom break and ended up absconding into the woods there would be no one to stop him, and, in fact, no one with the responsibility to try. I asked Don and Barajas about this. In unison they waved at the forest and said, “Look around! Where’s he gonna go?”

An inmate puller and sawyer at work.

Then Don told a story. “I showed up at the camp one day,” he said, “and there was a black bear in the middle of the yard. These guys are from the streets, and they didn’t know what to do. So I went to take a look, and what had happened was that the bear had stole himself a trash bag full of pruno.” Pruno is illicit prison wine. “He was drunk off his ass, collapsed, in the middle of camp. All the guys were terrified. These tough gangbangers from the city. They’d never seen a bear up close.”

Along with Don and Barajas there was also a tall and impressive Cal Fire captain named Loren, serving as the overseer on the operation. He—alone among all the people associated with the camp program I dealt with—was possessed of a contempt for the prisoners that took a moment to pick up on and then was unmistakable.

When he needed a couple guys to cut down a dead tree, he called to Justin, who yelled back for a saw team to come with him. Everyone I had seen on the operation so far had been walking, if only because it’s hard to run with a 50-pound pack on your back and a chainsaw in your hand. So they walked. Loren gave a little laugh. “Move guys, c’mon, what is this?” he said. They broke into a waddling sort of trot. He gave another little laugh. “Better.”

At this point we were moving very quickly, marching down the line, halting, lighting brush with little watering-can-like devices that dripped a flaming mixture of gas and motor oil. Marching, cutting, and burning, over and over. We were achieving an unexpectedly hot and complete (“clean,” in firefighter parlance) burn, given the conditions. Don said it was one of the best burning operations he had ever seen.

While we walked I hung out with Justin, who seemed totally unbothered by the heat, by his pack, by the fact that he hadn’t sat down in six hours. A pine went up, with the special whoosh-crackle of a tree going, in half a second, from burning at its base to being totally engulfed. The guys were all cheering, rooting for the fire, an inversion.

“Goddamn,” Barajas said. “I love that sound.”

By now it was getting dark, and Don and I had to figure out how to get back to our truck and out of the forest. Loren gestured to Justin with his chin. “Just bivy down here,” he said. “Him and 30 guys would all love to keep you warm.” Justin didn’t react to this, if he heard it, and neither Don nor Barajas found the joke funny—nor would have the Loo or Fish, if they’d heard it—which is really the only advertisement I need to give for the camp program or most of the men involved with it. Justin and I shook hands very formally. I asked if he was going to get any sleep that night. He didn’t seem worried about it.

Don and I drove back to the incident base and I spent a couple more days sleeping in the woods, visiting the Baseline camp, and hanging out down the road in Sonora, a little hill town full of the type of people who prefer to live in the hills and that’s hard not to like.

The Rim fire is, as of this writing, still burning, though it’s mostly contained and most of the men I met have probably gone back to camp, or were assigned to a different fire. I’d been so taken with the program as a symbol of all the big dreams and little failures of the state, and with Justin’s own personal reinvention-in-the-wild narrative that it was only under questioning from the craggy regulars at Zane’s that it occurred to me to think about what I had really learned from my experience.

The whole Conservation Camp program raises some obvious questions about social control, the human spirit, and the nature of the modern prison—the first thing most people ask when they hear about incarcerated men risking their lives to fight wildfires usually being some equivalent of “Isn’t that barbaric?” and the second being, “Why don’t they just run away?”

The answer to the first question seems basically to be no, because the answer to the second question essentially seems to be that most of the guys in the program want to be there. There are no unbroken-outlaw types in the camps. The reasons for this have, in part, to do with the fact that you have to play ball to even make it into the program, and in part to do with the scary nature of California’s prisons—the Loo and Fish both gave me long talks about how things aren’t as bad as you hear, but what you hear is really bad—stabbings, sexual assault, racial divisions deeper than in any other system in the country—so we can maybe just split the difference.

In any case, everyone I met was well aware of the dangers and physical demands of fighting these types of fires. They were happy to be there, and the ones who resisted got booted back to prison. This was true of thieves, repeat drug offenders, guys who’d been in the system most of their lives.

The rehabilitation was a little unsettling to see in action—because any way you look at it, the effect seems to have been that a human’s capacity for will and defiance had been broken down through labor and identification with sympathetic authority figures, and to hear the Loo or Fish tell it, the effect rarely held for guys once they were released. “I get a lot of guys who ask me, ‘Hey, Loo, when I come back can I come to your camp again?’ I’m like, ‘Man, you’re missing the point here.’” But it still makes you wonder how a big, old earnest state program like this could be so little known and so rarely used as a template for other prisoner-rehabilitation programs.

For reasons that CDCR had trouble elaborating fully the Conservation Camp Program is actually a couple hundred inmates under capacity. The better-known method to alleviate overcrowding in the prisons is to send low-level offenders to county jails, and the state is experimenting with sending inmates to private facilities out-of-state, which seems like an enormous missed opportunity. “I still have that ambition,” Justin had told me at some point, speaking to the darker impulses that led him to the camp in the first place. “But it’s tempered. Now what I want to do when I get out is join Cal Fire.”

More by James Pogue:

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