USA–– WARNER SPRINGS Herlinda Romo adjusted her orange bandana, pulled her goggled helmet onto her head, loaded up her 40-plus pound backpack, and headed out for another round of cutting, digging and clearing brush to stop the advance of the Buck Fire.
We’re doing back-breaking labor, the 33-year-old said. It feels good. It’s a sense of accomplishment.
Romo, born and raised in Coachella, is one of 120 female prisoners who’d been at the California Institution for Women in Corona.
But through good behavior, tests and training, they earned the opportunity to leave the confines to live and work at the Puerta La Cruz Conservation Camp #14 in Warner Springs as part of an inmate wildland firefighting crew.
The camp, one of only three female wildland firefighting camps in the country, is part of a state program started in 1946 that now employs nearly 4,000 male and female offenders in 200 fire crews.
It saves California taxpayers more than $80 million annually on average, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which runs the program with Cal Fire.
But a new law to reduce the number of inmates in the state’s prisons is pushing nonviolent criminals out of the system precisely the pool of inmates the fire crew program draws from.
The law took a big chunk out of the amount of inmates eligible, said Sgt. Scott Cole, the camp’s assistant commander.
Instead of five crews at the Puerta La Cruz camp, they’ve consolidated into four. Plus, a crew normally has 18 inmates, but they’ve had to drop to 13 or 14.
County jails, where the nonviolent prisoners were sent, also are overcrowded, and are talking about sending some inmates to fill firefighting crews, Cole said.
But it’s quite a convoluted situation, he said.
The crews work 24-hour shifts high up on ridges and right on the fire lines.
On Thursday, a female inmate crew made quick work of mature, green vegetation near the perimeter of the Buck Fire.
They were cutting a line between the charred, flame-swept landscape and the old, unburned growth, which could easily ignite if the blaze changed direction.
The line worked in sync, with the first woman cutting away brush with a buzz saw while others, following behind, pulled away the debris, dug out roots, and chopped stumps.
Once the line was cut about four feet in width the remaining crew came though with scraping tools, smoothing the ground down to bare dirt and rock.
In addition to the work on the fire lines, female inmates also run the mobile kitchens that are set up at incident command centers.
Jerilee Didier, 45, of Bakersfield was flipping pork sausage patties over a large gas grill Thursday at the incident command center for the fires raging in north San Diego County.
The women inmates were running the kitchen for the massive operation, serving up meals for nearly 1,500 firefighters and crews working the lines or running the command center.
Firefighters and fire crews are on 24-hour shifts, and providing a constant supply of food is a never-ending operation.
The men and women on the line receive a hot breakfast, and a brown bag filled with food items about 3,000 calories worth to tide them over for lunch and dinner.
A typical sack lunch assembled by the kitchen crew on Thursday included a turkey or vegetarian sandwich, a pear, an apple, string cheese, nutrition bars, peanuts, two packages of electrolyte replacement drink and a handful of gum.
The grunt work and seemingly domestic duties don’t discount the danger the inmate crews face with the other firefighters.
Wildland firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs, Cole said. All you have is your hand tools and your wits and your knowledge of fire.
On Aug. 7, a 9-acre brush and debris fire in Thermal sent a male inmate firefighter to a hospital with minor injuries.
Jimmy Randolph, an inmate firefighter housed at Fenner Canyon Conservation Camp in Valyermo, died at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Desert Regional Hospital in Palm Springs after becoming ill, the state corrections department said Monday.
The 44-year-old had been assigned to the Buck Fire last week in Aguanga that sent smoke into the Coachella Valley. The cause of death has not been released pending autopsy results. Convicted of petty theft, he was to be paroled in October.
Female firefighter Romo was incarcerated in 2009 and has a record of burglary and possession of a controlled substance, according to Riverside County Superior Court records.
She’s scheduled to be released on Dec. 1 and plans to work for her family when she returns home.
Like the rest of the crew, she makes $1.67 a day when out on the fire line.
If you can work for a dollar a day, you can do anything, she said.
When Romo first arrived at the camp, she was scared of fire, Cole said. But now she’s second in command on her crew.
The responsibility really gave her a sense of direction.
In addition to self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment, prisoners can shave some time off prison sentences, get their GEDs and take college courses.
When they’re not fighting fires, they do grading and other work for parks and water districts.
It teaches you work ethics, responsibility, said Shanelle Lopez, 24, who’s serving a three-year sentence for burglary. You’re giving back a little of what you’ve taken away.