Dressed head to toe in a bright orange jumpsuit with drops of sweat beading at his temples, Oscar Castro revs his chainsaw and slices through pine tree limbs, manzanita and snowbush.
Castro, alongside a hand crew of 14 others, is clearing a 30-foot safety corridor to help reduce the risk of wildfire spreading into Truckee’s Armstrong tract.
But instead of “Tahoe National Forest” emblazoned across his back Castro’s fire-safe uniform reads “CDC Prisoner.”
Castro, 35, has been in and out of the prison system for more than 11 years. But this time he says it’s different ” thanks in part to his experience working on a fire crew.
Alongside a team of fellow felons, Castro works full-time mostly in Nevada, Placer and Yuba counties readying brush piles, carrying out search-and-rescue work, snow shoveling, controlled burns and responding to fires like the Washoe blaze on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore and the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe.
Castro said he originally signed up for “fire camp” because he could serve less than his four-year sentence. Now he realizes that living at Washington Ridge Conservation Camp and working on an inmate fire crew is much better than the alternative ” state prison.
“To me, it passes my time faster and I get to get out. And I’m not in a cell, stressing,” says Castro.
At 4,000-feet elevation, Washington Ridge Conservation Camp is tucked away in the wooded forest off Highway 20, a few miles outside Nevada City. Though it’s a part of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), it really is more like camp than a prison ” one might never know if the fence-less estate hosted church teens, athletes-in-training or convicted felons.
In a concerted effort to rehabilitate nonviolent felons while serving local communities, the department of corrections joined forces with the California Department of Forestry, now Calfire, in 1946 and formed inmate fire crews.
Officials from both agencies say the partnership teaches the felons a work ethic and responsibility while providing Calfire with a workforce.
Though he was born and raised in Orange County, Calif., Castro speaks in accented English. He has a wife and eight-year-old son, Oscar Jr., waiting for him to return home in less than a year.
Castro worked in metal finishing and got caught up in the wrong crowd when he got busted in March 2004 for burglary and identity theft. In hindsight, he says he was probably bored with his life, but now longs for the daily grind and the comfort of family.
“It was like a regular, normal life ” you work, come home, see your family, then go back to work again,” Castro says of life before his most recent arrest.
Because camp is nearly 500 miles from home, Castro hasn’t seen his wife and son since working on a fire crew. But he does call them collect twice weekly, an opportunity that might not be afforded if he was still at Wasco State Prison.
Castro says this time really is his last in prison, “’cause of my son,” he says.
The collaboration between CDC and Calfire doesn’t serve the inmates alone, but the Tahoe-Truckee community, as well.
“[Without the program] we wouldn’t get this kind of work done. The town is getting the roadsides cleaned for the snow removal … and we have the opportunity for the fuel work, which will slow a fire down,” says Bob Belden, defensible space coordinator with Truckee Fire Protection District.
From a financial standpoint, utilizing inmate crews spares the town and county a significant chunk of money.
“[Hand crews] can get kind of expensive when you have long, extensive periods of fire or maintenance work…” Belden said.
But inmates earn just $1.45 each day for their labor and an extra $1 per hour for work fighting a fire, compared to U.S. Forest Service crews which cost upward of $10 per hour per person.
“The savings to the community is unbelievable to the taxpayers,” says Mark Micheels, Washington Ridge camp commander. “Overall this is a great program. They’re paying their debt to society, and they’re giving back to society.”
It’s nearly dinnertime on a Thursday evening and four of the five inmate fire crews return from a long day working in the field. As the red trucks pull into camp and unload, the inmates immediately line-up, with empty lunch boxes in hand, as they wait for the “exchange of custody” ” when Calfire turns the inmates back over to CDC custody ” before hitting the showers and chow hall for a hearty dinner.
Camp, as it is appropriately called, is serene and park-like. Well-groomed landscape, maintained by the inmates, decorates the 80 leased U.S. Forest Service acres. The property includes ball fields, a pond, horseshoe pits, a visiting area, dormitories and a recreation hall. But after eight solid hours thinning trees and removing brush, most of the inmates take to the television or their sleeping cubicles to rest before another demanding day.
As far as inmates go, these low-custody, nonviolent felons are the “cream of the crop,” CDC and Calfire officials say.
They are carpenters, chefs, plumbers, financial advisors and more. But they’ve been convicted typically of drug offenses or property crimes. Certain violations including murder, rape, kidnapping and sexual assault automatically rule out admittance to camp.
Each of the inmates are evaluated through a point system by a CDC committee, mostly based on criminal history.
John White, 51, used to run his own business in Temecula, Calif. Though his failed physical exam restricted him from serving on a fire crew, White does clerical work at the camp.
“They treat you like a human being here. It’s up to you to do the right thing,” he says.
Compared to county jail, where he last resided, White says Washington Ridge Conservation Camp is a “pleasure.”
“When you’re in county jail, you’re always on edge because you never know what’s going to happen. Here, just the freedom of being outside and being taken care of properly ” it’s just night and day,” he says.
Gray-blonde hair peaks out beneath the back of Washington Ridge Crew 4 Captain Norm Hoffman’s cap, his skin tanned by hours of toiling under the Sierra sun. He has a confident stride, one that shows he’s the boss. He oversees a crew of 15 felons, after all.
Hoffman started as a volunteer firefighter before joining a community fire district and then landing a position with Calfire. He initially started working with the felon crews in 1999 because of a promotion, but has stuck around because he’s come to love the dynamics of his crew.
“You are a team. You are a family. And you have to depend on each other, no matter who you are,” he says.
Hoffman says that he knows perfectly well that his employees have committed felony offenses, but he doesn’t judge them on their past grievances.
“If I treat them like human beings, I don’t have to worry about my life at all,” he says. “When you’re able to help these guys, hopefully they won’t come back.”
– Total inmates at Washington Ridge Conservation Camp: 86
– Number of fire crews: 5
– Crew members per team: 15 to 17
– Calfire and CDC staff: 23
– Number of female staff: 4
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