USA–– For 110 inmates currently serving sentences at Pitchess Detention Center, the bright orange county jumpsuits they wear doesn’t mean felon. It means firefighter.
CASTAIC — On the outside, they were deemed criminals.
On the inside, they became heroes.
For 110 inmates currently serving sentences at Pitchess Detention Center, the bright orange county jumpsuits they wear doesn’t mean felon. It means firefighter.
“I’m not a bad guy, I just made some poor choices,” said Richard Ortega, 42.
That poor choice, which Ortega would only describe as “something I shouldn’t have done,” landed him in a graduation line Monday at Pitchess, where he and the other men received applause, a certificate, and praise for a job well done as the first class to graduate from the newly formed Inmate Fire Camp Training Facility.
For months, the men endured hard physical training such as six-hour hikes in the canyons surrounding the detention center, as well as 80 hours of intensive firefighting training, that included hauling and hoisting heavy tools, carrying life-saving equipment on their backs and uncoiling unwieldy hoses. More than half of the men even earned certificates in culinary arts, so that they could find jobs in the food industry after their release.
The fire training program was a result of AB 109, the state’s realignment plan which places nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenders into the custody of local law enforcement agencies. Offenses include drug possession, theft or fraud.
In the past, the men would have been trained through state prisons, but realignment forced the
sheriff’s and fire departments to create a local version at Pitchess.
The goal of the program is to inspire teamwork and to motivate the inmates to use their skills after their release. But while serving, the men will be eligible to work the fire lines or other natural disasters in 14-man teams.
Many of the firefighters and sheriff’s deputies who worked with the inmates said they developed respect for them. The program erased jail politics and racial lines, and in the end, the inmates were simply treated as men, equal in their goal of battling a blaze should the time arise, and to serve the needs of the public.
“We instilled in them the same sense of preparedness and orderliness that we have in the fire service,” said Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.
Even the grass on the old dirt field where they graduated was planted and maintained by the inmates.
During the graduation ceremony, Osby told the men that their work on the fire lines could make a difference between someone living and someone dying, “and between someone having a home and someone losing a home.”
Sheriff Lee Baca was equally proud of the graduates, adding that their goal after their release was to do good things. He told them the hikes they went on were symbolic of life and its challenges.
“Doing good things in life can change your whole world for you, because you will be remembered for that something good, instead of the negative,” Baca said. “We’ve given you the strongest tools possible to avoid the criminal justice system.”
During the graduation ceremony, mothers and wives, sisters and sons looked on proudly as their loved ones received certificates and some even addressed the audience.
“Today, we are better, more successful men,” said inmate Michael Pitts. “We can and should be able to build a better future.”
“We did work hard, but it’s a good place to be,” added Brian Banning. “We get a lot of respect.”
Because of their records, the men can’t work as firefighters in many municipal fire departments, but could be called up by state or federal agencies. Baca said he and Osby are hoping to work on an auxiliary program through the county, which would allow the men to be called up to serve on the fire line, if needed.
After the ceremony, Ortega showed off his certificate to his mom Mariam Ortega and his 22-year-old son Richard Ortega Jr., a U.S. Marine who just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
“I’m very proud of him,” Mariam Ortega said of her son. “When he told me about the fire program, I was happy for him. The rest I leave up to the Lord that he will be safe.”
The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.