AMADOR COUNTY, Calif. — California fire crews are contending with a historic fire season across the state, with incidents like the LNU and SCU Lightning Complex fires which have become the second and third largest wildfires in state history.
In Butte County, where the devastating and deadly Camp Fire raged just two years ago, another lightning complex fire threatens the landscape, and 64 juvenile inmate firefighters are battling the blaze alongside CAL FIRE and Butte County crews.
"[It's a] completely volunteer program where they sign up to serve their communities and give back to their communities, and in that capacity, they work side by side with other fire agencies from different counties, states, other camps," said James Liptrap, Superintendent of Pine Grove Conservation Camp.
Pine Grove Conservation Camp in Amador County is the oldest continually-operating conservation camp in the state. It is run through the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Male juvenile offenders aged 18 and up are trained to serve as Type 1 hand crews, meaning they are equipped with the most complex knowledge in the firefighting incident command system.
"They're considered firefighters, and we view them as such. As a matter of fact, we view them as heroes because each one of them is a hero, in our opinion," Liptrap said.
Pine Grove, as a joint venture with CAL FIRE, is a federally recognized firefighting program. Once trained, these first responders can be deployed all over the state for emergencies such as wildfires and floods.
"This is an extremely important community re-entry program for these youth," Liptrap said. "We take them from a very structured setting in a facility and put them in a much less restrictive environment in a camp."
"Less restrictive" is an understatement. There are no fences at the camp. No barbed wire or other barriers enclose the juvenile inmates.
"We put the responsibility back on the individual youth for doing the right thing simply because it's the right thing to do," Liptrap said.
The conservation camp offers experience, job skills, an accredited high school where inmates can get their GED or diploma, and even college courses.
"We're here to support them, and we're here to mentor them...but ultimately, what we're doing is we're preparing them to be contributing members of the society when they're released, so that there are no more victims, and that they do have a future that doesn't involve incarceration, and they hopefully will never have to be removed from their families again. That's our goal," Liptrap said.
Liptrap says several alumni of the program have gone on to become professional full-time firefighters with a variety of agencies such as the Federal Forest Service, the CCC fire crews in Southern California, and other private wildland firefighting companies.
"Personally, I got 30 years [of] experience in the department, and I can honestly tell you this is the most beneficial program I've ever seen towards truly affecting change in the youth," Liptrap said.
The superintendent credits a lot of that individual advancement to the community. Pine Grove residents have long been supportive of the conservation camp and the firefighters that develop through the program. The young inmates respond well to that support, Liptrap says.
"Prior to their incarceration, they're used to learning a negative set of values based on their peer groups for socially unacceptable behavior. And their interaction with society is usually one based on distrust or fear," Liptrap said.
"But when they come here and they become a firefighter and they save somebody's home or they come off the fire line and there are crowds of people lining the highway, holding signs that say 'Thank You, Firefighter,' they learn to interact with the community from a completely different angle, and they feel good about themselves and they feel good about what they've done."
In the wake of the coronavirus, and focusing on a need to recoup financial losses in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom's May revision to the 2020-21 Budget included a proposal to close all DJJ facilities by attrition, a move which would likely take three years to see through.
However, "there is currently no final decision on whether Pine Grove camp will be closed," DJJ said. "It is an important rehabilitative resource for youth, and there may be alternate uses for the camp under a re-aligned system. Those conversations will be ongoing, and involve all stakeholders."
Pine Grove is a different kind of program in the juvenile justice system, one that California may desperately need going forward.
As the 2020 fire season hits its peak and with CAL FIRE already stretched thin, Pine Grove's inmate firefighters are a small but well-trained resource that the agency can count on to tap.
"We have four crews out on…Butte County right now, on the Lightning Complex up there, and they've been deployed up there for several days now," Liptrap said.
Pine Grove's juvenile inmate firefighters work the similar shifts to CAL FIRE and local fire crews—12 on/12 off, or 24 on/24 off shifts. As hand crews, the Pine Grove firefighters go where other firefighting equipment cannot, into the dense thick of smoke and heat.
"It goes against every...basic human instinct to run towards the fire when everyone around you is running in the opposite direction, and your basic instincts are saying, 'You're not safe, go away,' you know, make yourself safe…It's controlling the fear and doing your sense of duty to protect your community, and that's what these kids do, and they need to be recognized for the heroes they are," Liptrap said.