As I approached a crew of firefighters on the edge of smoldering redwoods, just west of Central California’s Big Sur River, it struck me that their uniforms were orange—not the yellow you usually see on firefighters.
It was just 12 hours after the Pfeiffer Fire broke out; it started on Dec. 16 and burned around 1,000 acres, destroying more than 30 homes in the process. I had arrived in the valley a few hours earlier, and was still getting a lay of the land.
I greeted the first crew member I encountered, and asked if he would answer some questions; he just shook his head with a grin and didn’t say anything. Then a whole bunch of other heads turned my way.
“I’ll answer some questions!”
Four of them came to my side and told me of a redwood tree falling in the night and almost hitting a member of their crew. They’d been out since 2 a.m., they said, and a tree seems to fall every five minutes. They were effusive, excitable. I asked where they were from.
“We’re from Gabilan Camp, in Soledad,” one said, pointing to the decal on his helmet. “You heard of Gabilan Camp?”
Gabilan Conservation Camp was formed in 1986 as part of the California Conservation Camp program, administered by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The program’s aim is to allow able-bodied (and willing) inmates to perform meaningful work for the public. And since 1947, after teaming up with Cal Fire, much of that work is firefighting.
“For the Department of Corrections, it’s the one ray of sunshine,” Gabilan Conservation Camp Commander Steve Pate said. “It’s a great program.”
There are camps closer to the Coachella Valley, too. For example, the Bautista Conservation Camp, in Hemet, is home to 107 inmates, as of Oct. 31, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website. (Two crewmembers, Victor Ferrara and Aaron Perry, actually died while battling a fire in 1990, according to the camp website.)
Pate spoke to me on Dec. 18 from Big Sur, as he oversaw 374 inmate firefighters from throughout the state’s conservation camps, including those from Gabilan, where 134 inmate-firefighters had been assigned.
At the time we spoke, inmates made up more than 42 percent of the fire suppression personnel. “We’re the largest force out here,” Pate said.
Each of their 11 strike teams on site in Big Sur consisted of 34 inmate firefighters, and two each of correctional officers, corrections supervisors, Cal Fire captains and Cal Fire strike team leaders.
Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are convicts who have met a list of qualifications including good behavior, being medically fit, and having no convictions for sex offenses or arson. Their training begins at a prison, the Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown. After passing tests for fitness and skills, they are assigned to a camp, where their lives change markedly.
“There’s a lot of freedom in the camp,” Pate said. “They’re not in cells; they have an open dorm. The doors are not locked, and they can go to the yard anytime.” He added that the food is much better than regular prison food. “Probably better than I eat every day,” he said.
When Gabilan’s inmate firefighters are not fighting fires around the state, they’re out in Monterey County, performing public-works duties. They sandbag in Carmel when a flood hits, or clear brush in the forests of Pebble Beach.
“Our crews account for $280,000 a month in labor saved by community,” Pate said. That number is conservative, he added, since it assumes minimum wage; inmate firefighters are paid $1 per hour.
I met three of them at the Pfeiffer Fire incident base on Dec. 19, after they’d come off a 24-hour shift. Pate indicated that the three prisons they came from—New Folsom, Santa Nella and Corcoran—are a far cry from Gabilan Camp.
“They’re the three hardest prisons in the state,” he said.
Melvin Gray, 47, was in prison for 11 years before coming to Gabilan, where he’s spent the last two. “It changed my whole life,” he said, adding that he plans to apply for a job with Cal Fire when his sentence is up, just four months from now. “I have something to go home to.”
Patrick Meyer, 59, voices a sentiment they all share: It’s great to be part of a team, to work together and help the community. “We’re more than a crew,” Meyer said. “We’re a family.”
Mark Nunez, 40, relays tales of locals cheering them on, driving by them on Highway 1 and saying, “We love you!”
“They don’t treat you like an inmate,” Nunez said. “It makes you feel good.”
A version of this story appeared in the Monterey County Weekly. Below: Inmate Charles Jones takes a brief break while battling the Pfeiffer Fire. Photo by Nic Coury.