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Inside the inmate firefighting crews that helped save Sonoma

Inmate crews, distinguished by their orange fire-resistant suits, cleared burnt trees from the sides of Lovall Valley Road on Monday, November 13. Kirk Brown, 35, will be released in March, 2018, having spent his incarceration stationed at the Devil's Garden Camp in Altura, CA. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

LORNA SHERIDAN,

Kirk Brown, 35, has been working Sonoma’s Tubbs and Atlas fires for the past 29 days, fighting the most destructive blazes he’s ever seen.

His crew was still hard at work this week. Out in the pouring rain, they are clearing fallen trees and burned undergrowth along Lovall Valley Road so that residents can safely get to and from their houses.

But if you want to stop by and thank him for helping save Sonoma Valley, you’ll need to get permission first from the California Department of Corrections.

Brown is currently serving a 16-month sentence for possession of a firearm.

Orange-clad inmates make up 35 to 40 percent of Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting force.

Last month, in addition to the thousands of mutual aid crews that came to defend the Valley, 1,500 of the firefighters were inmates from minimum security “conservation camps” run by the California Department of Corrections.

“The inmates are overseen by the Corrections Department while they are in the camps, and by CalFire when they leave camp,” said Correction Department spokesperson Bill Sessa.

“In the Nuns fire, the inmate crews were an indispensable resource in protecting the structures and ultimately controlling the fire,” said Sonoma Valley Fire Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom.

The inmates stand out. They wear orange fire-resistant suits and do specific work, primarily cutting containment lines and clearing brush to keep a wildfire within boundaries.

David Cook, of Cook Vineyard Management, manages the 80-acre Pagani Ranch Vineyard, just south of Kenwood, and he says that the property’s 110-year-old vines were saved by a crew of inmates.

“The fire was raging down the back side of the hill from the Warm Springs area and they created a fire line that saved the vineyard,” said Cook, who also serves as a member of the Sonoma City Council. “One of the Paganis, who works for me, was evacuating a relative from the property when he saw the inmates arrive. He said he started crying when he saw them coming down over the hill to their rescue.”

Some homeowners whose houses they helped save dubbed the inmates “angels in orange.”

“There just weren’t enough resources available during the height of these fires,” added Cook. “If it hadn’t been for those inmates, the vineyard would have been wiped out. We are just so appreciative that they were there to help.”

Thirty California prison camps were assigned to the Sonoma/Napa fires, including one all-female crew from Southern California.

The unique program dates back 100 years and began with prisoners assigned to work road crews. During World War II, the predecessor agency to Cal Fire was short on workers and the idea was hatched to have inmates occupy “temporary camps” to augment the regular firefighting forces.

Only minimum- custody inmates are eligible to volunteer for the fire-fighting camps and they need to earn the right to participate through good behavior. If an inmate is in jail for sexual offenses, arson and or they have any history of escape, they can’t participate.

The inmates earn $2 a day while in the camps and $1 an hour when out battling fires. While the low wage appalls many, it’s the highest pay an inmate can receive for work while incarcerated. “This program is a beautiful thing,” said Kirk Brown, when interviewed this week in the pouring rain on the side of the road. “It gives us a chance to give back to the community and we can get time knocked off our sentence.”

He had never heard of the program when he entered prison.

“I’ve never done anything like this before in my life,” he said with a laugh.

Today, he is the leader – the “swamper” – of his crew.

“Kirk’s a real father figure to the other guys,” said a sergeant overseeing the crew.

In an average year, the program provides approximately 3 million firefighting hours, which saves taxpayers approximately $100 million.

A typical firefighting inmate camp houses 60 to 70 prisoners, who are divided into four or five crews. In total, around 3,800 inmates participate in the program, and there are 220 California firefighting crews in all.

They’re called conservation camps because, when not fighting fires, the inmates spend their days maintaining hiking trails, restoring historical structures, maintaining parks and flood protection, reforesting and clearing fallen trees and debris.

“The camps are literally what the word implies,” said CDCR spokesman Bill Sessa. “In most cases they are strategically placed in rural areas near where fires might break out.” The first inmate camp to show up in Sonoma Valley was from Konocti, near Clear Lake.

Prisoners in the camps live there year-round in dorms with minimum security, boundaries, but no electric fences, said Sessa.

“The informal atmosphere is a real draw,” Sessa said. “There are so many immediate benefits to the camp environment that rarely does an inmate ever jeopardize their spot.”

Once accepted, inmates stay in the camp until their parole date. Sessa said that studies have shown that inmates who fight fires are 10 percent less likely than other inmates to commit another crime after their release.

“I like it because I’m around other people who are trying to better their lives,” said Brown. “And the program teaches us work ethics, how to work as a team with others.”

“Inmates tell me that the life lessons they learned in the camps were the lasting benefit they got from the experience,” said Sessa. “They learn some of the life skills that we take for granted – working a job, being reliable. Countless times, they have told me that the camp experience is what helped them to succeed when they left prison.”

Jeff Bundschu, of Gundlach-Bundschu winery, interacted with a crew on his property one day toward the end of the fires.

“I’m all for it,” he said about the program. “If one of these guys applied for a job with me after their release, I would look really positively on their service with Cal Fire.”

Dmitra Smith, who lives in the Springs, is “incredibly appreciative” of the work done by the inmates, and she’s a proponent of the program. But as vice chair of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission, she says she’s very uncomfortable with the low wages the prisoners receive.

“The inmates work 24 to 72 hours shifts, carrying 60-pound packs and doing the most physically challenging work – like digging trenches and hand-clearing brush,” she said. “I really wish they made more than $1 an hour.”

Smith knew that numerous inmate crews were risking their lives alongside traditional crews and she reached out to Capt. Tracy Snyder at the California Department of Corrections to find out how she could send them thank-you notes. Snyder told her that she had never gotten this request before.

“She told me that sending a letter or card could make a huge difference in their lives,” said Smith.

Snyder emailed Smith and said that thank-you notes would “provide the inmates with meaning, pride, and a feeling of accomplishment; many of them have never had any of those feelings in their lives.”

As of last week, almost 150 prisoner firefighters were still in and around Sonoma County, doing debris cleanup and clearing storm drains in advance of the winter rains.

“The inmates worked tirelessly up in the hills and they didn’t see all the encouraging signs, and get all the hugs and pose for selfies,” said Smith. “Sending them cards to say thank you is the least we can do.”

Contact lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.