CAL FIRE to hire more than 1,000 additional firefighters

More seasonal and permanent firefighters

(Revised at 11:15 a.m. PDT July 10, 2020)

Inmate crew carrier vehicles
Approximately 19 inmate crew carrier vehicles at the Eagle fire in San Diego County, which burned between Warner Springs and Borrego Springs, California. CAL FIRE photo, July 25, 2011.

With the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of inmate firefighters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is scrambling to find enough personnel to handle the all important job of cutting fireline and mopping up wildfires.

COVID spreading through inmate crew camps and prisons has cut the number of inmate crews available from 192 to 94. Thursday California Governor Gavin Newsom said 12 inmate camps had to be quarantined last month due to the virus. Compounding the firefighter shortage was the early release of thousands of state inmates to create more space in the facilities during the pandemic, and before that, the state’s initiative to reduce the incarceration of those jailed for lower-level offenses.

The Governor announced the state intends to hire an additional 858 seasonal and 172 permanent firefighters. The agency has also changed the mission of six California Conservation Camp (CCC) crews to exclusively perform fire related tasks, two in the south and four in the north.

Lynnette Round, a CAL FIRE Education and Information Officer, said the $72 million needed to hire the firefighters will come from the already allocated Emergency fund.

CAL FIRE expects to begin hiring the firefighters immediately using current eligibility lists. They anticipate that a recruitment process will occur to increase the number of candidates beyond the current lists.

The increase in the number of employed state firefighters is part of  the agency’s effort to keep 95 percent of all fires to 10 acres or less.

(This article was edited July 10 to show that 172 permanent firefighters are being hired, in addition to the 858 seasonals.)

Former inmate firefighters establish forestry company

All Around Forestry
All Around Forestry photo

Former inmates that acquired skills while they were incarcerated are making use of that training and experience in the woods of New Mexico.

Lawrence Jaramillo and Joshua Melendrez became qualified as wildland firefighters and chain saw operators while serving time in Los Lunas prison. The Inmate Workers Camp program (IWC) taught them the basics of wildland firefighting.

After they spent three years in prison the two of them formed a private company, All Around Forestry LLC.

I talked with Mr. Jaramillo Friday just after the final inspection was completed on the largest project they have worked on since the company was issued a business license in November. On the 13-acre job the company’s six employees thinned dog hair thickets, removed some large trees, and otherwise reduced hazardous fuels around structures at the Ponderosa Christian Camp in the Jemez Mountains. He said they have submitted bids on other projects that they hope to hear from soon.

Mr. Melendrez told us, “The cool thing about it is that every single one of our employees with us are wildland fire certified as well,” he said. “We all have done the program. We all went through as ADs for New Mexico State Forestry [after we got out of prison] — went on fires and fought fires with each other for quite some time now. We all have the knowledge of what needs to be done, and to do it thoroughly as well.”

They want to realize what is implied in the company’s name, All Around Forestry LLC, and hope to provide additional services such as a 20-person crew and a fire engine.

All Around Forestry
All Around Forestry photo

Below is an excerpt from an article at KOAT:

For these men it’s about giving people like them a second chance.

“A lot of people are happy and proud to see, I guess, a success story,” Melendrez said. “We owe a lot of it to IWC but it’s also our own mindset to be better for ourselves.”

“They’ve been doing an amazing amount of work, they’ve gotten an amazing amount done,” Ponderosa Christian Camp board director Craig Mathews said. “We hope this is just a spring board for them, and that they’re very successful in the projects they get awarded in the future.”

Not only is it an opportunity to grow, but also a chance to go at life a different way this time.

“We did wrong in the past but that’s not us anymore, we’ve changed our lives completely,” Melendrez said.

Jaramillo said they are looking for other clients to do business with, as well as other former inmates who want to join the company.

Idaho inmate accused of rape at a fire in Utah

The Idaho Department of Corrections has returned their fire crews to prison while it reviews the program

Rubin Hernandez rape

An inmate working on a camp crew has been accused of raping a woman at the Coal Hollow Fire 56 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Associated Press is reporting that Ruben Hernandez, 27, has been charged with felony rape. Below is an excerpt from the article:

…The woman told police Hernandez had been flirting with her and asked for her number. She gave him a friend’s husband’s contact information to get him to leave her alone, according to charging documents filed Friday.

One morning as she was sitting in a wash trailer watching a movie, Hernandez entered, exposed himself and asked for oral sex, authorities said. He assaulted her after she again rejected him, according to charging documents.

She froze, afraid to scream or stop him because she knew he was a prisoner and didn’t want to get hurt, the charges say. She told a friend, who reported the assault to base-camp security guards.

The inmate was part of a 10-person crew from Idaho working at the incident command post in Utah, performing cooking and janitorial duties supervised by two Idaho correctional officers.

The alleged rape occurred on a day of transition at the fire, as the Northern Rockies incident management team departed and turned it over to a local Type 3 team.

After the August 29 incident the Idaho Department of Corrections brought their fire crews back to prison while it reviews the way they choose, train, and deploy inmates in the program.

The Coal Hollow Fire has burned over 31,000 acres along Highway 6 south of Spanish Fork Canyon. The lightning-caused fire started August 4 and is winding down. It has not been updated on Inciweb since September 8, 2018.

map Coal Hollow Fire Utah

Firefighter collapses, dies during first day of training

Anthony Colacino, 33, died
Anthony Colacino, 33, died during physical training April 21, 2018.

An inmate firefighter collapsed and died during physical training near Jamestown, California April 21. For Anthony Colacino it was his first day as a trainee firefighter on the Sierra Conservation Center fire crew. Just before 8 a.m., about 50 minutes into a one-hour training hike, Mr. Colacino collapsed.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the LA Times:

The on-duty fire captain, along with four other inmate firefighters, took Colacino to the center’s firehouse, where they tried to save him by doing CPR in the vehicle and at the facility until an ambulance arrived, said Krissi Khokhobashvili, a corrections spokeswoman. “Those inmate firefighters, they jumped into action,” she said. “They did what they’re supposed to do.”

Colacino — who had served more than a year of a four-year, four-month sentence out of Riverside County for two counts of evading a peace officer while driving recklessly, cruelty to animals and discharging a firearm with gross negligence — was pronounced dead soon after. Officials said foul play is not suspected in his death, but the Tuolumne County coroner will determine the cause of death.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Colacino’s friends, family, and coworkers.

(UPDATE Feb. 16, 2021. MyMotherLode reported: “Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, Sgt. Andrea Benson, says, ‘The official cause of death [of Mr. Colacino] is Fatal Cardiac Arrhythmia due to Cardiomyopathy with contributing factors of Intramural Coronary Artery Disease.’  ” )

At least two other very serious life-threatening injuries have occured to wildland firefighters in recent years during day one or two of physical training. They occurred in 2016 in South Dakota and the Northwest.

One was a Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo) injury after running for more than nine miles and doing uphill sprints on the first day.

The other was a heat stroke near the end of a seven-mile run on day two of their season. The employee was unconscious for several hours and spent four days in the hospital.

We are aware of five other California inmate line of duty fatalities in the last seven years:

  • January 4, 2012: Crisanto Leo Lionell, 54, was participating in a training exercise at the California National Guard’s Camp San Luis when he lost consciousness and later passed away.
  • August 19, 2012: Jimmy Randolf, 44, died seven hours after he was found unresponsive where he was sleeping at the Buck Fire. The cause of death was listed as anoxic encephalopathy combined with complications of heat stroke.
  • February 25, 2016: Shawna Lynn Jones, 22, died from major head injuries after being struck by a rolling boulder while fighting the Mulholland Fire near Malibu.
  • May 24, 2017: Matthew Beck, 26, was working on a county roads project with a crew in the Hoopa area. He suffered major head, neck and back injuries when a 120-foot tall tree uprooted and fell on him. He died before life-flight crews were able to reach him.
  • July 11, 2017: Frank Anaya, 22, was throwing cut brush during line construction operations on a fire near Lakeside when he lost his balance and fell into a running chainsaw. He suffered a severe cut to his upper right leg behind his chaps and succumbed to his injuries July 11, 2017.

California firefighter dies after suffering chain saw injury

Frank Anaya
Frank Anaya

A California firefighter died July 11 in a hospital from injuries he suffered July 5 while fighting a wildfire near Lakeside in Southern California.

Frank Anaya, an inmate firefighter with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation based at the La Cima Conservation Camp, was throwing cut brush during line construction operations when he lost his balance and fell into a running chainsaw. He suffered a severe cut to his upper right leg behind his chaps.

The 22-year old firefighter underwent multiple surgeries, but succumbed to his injuries July 11, 2017, according to the CDCR.

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Anaya’s friends, family, and coworkers.

Other California inmate firefighter fatalities that we are aware of in the last six years:

  • January 4, 2012. Crisanto Leo Lionell. Heart attack near the conclusion of a 20-minute, .66 mile exercise hike.
  • August 19, 2012. Jimmy Randolph. Anoxic encephalopathy combined with complications of heat stroke while assigned to the Buck Fire.
  • February 25, 2016. Shawna Lynn Jones. Struck by rolling boulder while working on the Mulholland Fire  .
  • May 24, 2017. Matthew Beck. Struck by falling tree while doing project work with his crew.

Edited July 14, 2017 to reflect new information in the Green Sheet. The victim was not running the chainsaw, but was swamping for it (throwing the cut brush).

More details released about the May 24 inmate fatality in California

Above: The top of the tree that struck Matthew Beck on May 24, 2017. CAL FIRE photo.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has released a few more details about the accident that killed a California inmate firefighter in Humboldt County on May 24. As disclosed earlier, Matthew Beck died after being struck by a falling tree.

Now we know that the tree had been previously identified as being hazardous but it was thought to be outside the work area.

Alder Crew #4 was working on Ishi Pishi Road towards Somes Bar picking up piles of limbs and brush from the previous two days of work to feed into a chipper. The machine was running at full throttle when the crew supervisor saw the tree falling and yelled a warning, which was not heard by the entire crew due to the noise from the chipper.

The supervisor attempted to call the Fortuna Emergency Communications Center on his hand held radio but could not make contact. He got in the crew carrier truck and drove about 400 yards to a location from which he could talk to the ECC with the vehicle’s mobile radio.

Mr. Beck received a fatal blow from the tree causing blunt force trauma to the head, neck, and torso.

The tree was a 105-year-old, 146-foot Douglas-fir, with a 21.5-inch diameter (DBH). It weighed approximately 3,000 pounds and had a downhill lean of about 46 degrees. Mr. Beck was hit by a portion of the tree that was about 18 feet from the tree top.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Eric.
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